Man in the Middle: Making and Writing History
Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous
A Book Review by Pam Munter
If journalism is “history in a hurry,” then the historian’s task is far more daunting, requiring not only an in-depth chronicle of events but, more importantly, an excavation of context. Open the dictionary to “historian” and it’s likely you’d see a picture of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the subject of a new biography by Richard Aldous. Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian (W.W. Norton, 2017) is a magnificently detailed, layered portrait of a complicated man who is probably best known for his extensive work after the Kennedy assassination. It would take several pages to list his books, papers, speeches and awards – not to mention his two Pulitzer Prizes.
The book opens in the moments after JFK has been assassinated in Dallas. Schlesinger flies to DC where the President’s brother, Robert, asks him to look inside the casket to advise whether it should be open or closed. RFK had once said of him, “He didn’t do a helluva lot, but he was good to have around.” Others disagreed about the casket but he followed Schlesinger’s opinion and kept it closed. This one moment underscores the trust the Kennedys placed in their longtime friend and colleague.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Schlesinger’s life was the powerful (some would say controlling) influence of his father, also a noted historian. His father overtly influenced his career choice and facilitated the publication of his undergraduate thesis, so under his spell that the son changed his middle name to his father’s so he could be a junior. Aldous writes, “Arthur now…(moved) increasingly from this time onwards identifying himself to the world as Professor Arthur Schlesinger’s son.” It was likely the shared father-son bond with Harvard that exerted another life-changing influence. His father used his connections to get his son into the university on the fast track and, in some ways, Schlesinger, Jr. never left. Throughout his sometimes-checkered career in various roles in government service, he persistently returned to his alma mater almost as existential balm, an esteemed professor of history. When doubt was first cast on his credentials (he lacked the requisite doctorate), his father took him on as his own Ph.D. student, ensuring his success.
Another integral factor in young Schlesinger’s development was his dorky personal demeanor. He was shy, bespectacled, socially awkward and diminutive – the classic “egghead” with a bow tie. Perhaps it was overcoming these handicaps in his early 20s that resulted in an over-compensatory series of long-term affairs with women, among them the diplomat and socialite Marietta Tree. In spite of his marriage and four children back in the states, there were many such relationships, easily accomplished during his frequent stays away from home “on business.”
He worked for the Office of War Information, was a liaison to FDR, was instrumental in the Office of Strategic Services and was even drafted into the army. After the war ended, he continued his prodigious writing output, exploring the Supreme Court (much to the dismay of several of the Justices), the threat of communism, and founding Americans for Democratic Action, the premier liberal organization of its day. His colleagues were also notable names in history and literature and became his friends – Stewart Alsop, Clark Clifford, Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Felix Frankfurter, George Orwell, et al. But it wasn’t always easy to be his friend. The unexpected sweep into power was an aphrodisiac for this former nerd. The author concludes, “In such an overbearing environment, armed with a Pulitzer Prize and a sense of entitlement, Schlesinger not surprisingly began behaving in a way that many colleagues found arrogant and peremptory.” In spite of this prickliness, his life and career benefited from having strong mentors, advisors and influential friends.
His introduction into the rough-and-tumble of progressive partisan politics was largely instigated by his relationship with Adlai Stevenson, a fellow intellectual for whom he wrote speeches, a service he would perform for many over subsequent decades. But he was disappointed with Stevenson’s lack of political sophistication, saying his work with Stevenson was “like watching an acrobat and waiting for the fall.” Perhaps it was this disenchantment that led to his signing on to help the young JFK win the Democratic nomination in 1960. For many years, he would compete with another insider speech writer, Ted Sorensen, but secured his position in history by befriending Jacqueline Kennedy.
JFK enjoyed his company, mostly as a fellow history buff. “Kennedy would invite Schlesinger in at the end of the day, when the two men would enjoy a drink…and chat about whatever was on the president’s mind, particularly what he was reading at the time.” When his role as policy adviser to the President was apparently not valued, he was asked by Robert Kennedy to help Jackie establish the Kennedy Library. He was severely disappointed at the apparent demotion, but it later led to his central role in creating the legend of Camelot.
Jackie asked him to write the book that would become the guide for historians to come, A Thousand Days. Schlesinger wrote in his introduction that it wasn’t “a comprehensive history of the Kennedy Presidency. It is a personal memoir.” Critics accused him of hagiography, romanticizing the marriage and the short presidential tenure while ignoring JFK’s personal peccadillos. Thirty years later when JFK’s many sexual liaisons became public, Schlesinger wondered if we were “seduced and betrayed.” He wrote, “Did he fool us? Did we fool ourselves?”
While he had long been considered a public intellectual, he achieved widespread fame with the book’s publication, even making the cover of Time magazine. Maybe coincidentally, he realized now that it was time to end his sham marriage. A few short weeks later, he married again, to a former student with whom he had been having a relationship for many years.
His post-Kennedy prolific writing life produced numerous influential books, op-eds and speeches but little political involvement. After RFK’s assassination, he wrote, “My personal feeling is one of such outrage and despair that I do not want to get involved in politics again…Every political leader I have cared about is dead.”
In an epilogue, Aldous evaluates Schlesinger’s legacy as a masterful historian and speech writer. Schlesinger identified themes, detected through-lines of history even while living at the center of much of it. At his 80th birthday party, he announced, “We are prisoners of our own times and our own experiences,” then quoted Oscar Wilde: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
Aldous has written a comprehensive history himself, much of it eminently readable and even fascinating. The most revealing sections are about Schlesinger the person – how he navigated his own complex personality and his complicated relationships with other powerful figures. Aldous goes well beyond the curriculum vitae and delves into the inner workings of the man who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, film historian and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, Switchback, and many others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.