I felt that I knew Arthur long before I actually met him, because of his books. Grad school was a bit of a wasteland, and I searched in vain for history books that would truly illuminate the past, with vivid writing, sharp observations and that rarest of all academic elements: humor. I found all three under the tree one Christmas, in a book that looked like the last thing a serious scholar would ever read. The Book of the Month Club had just reissued The Age of Jackson (1945) in a new format, with a garish cover (a pretentious cardboard box) and too many illustrations and—as if that wasn’t scary enough—a large-type intro. I read it with reluctance, then dawning fascination, then exhilaration. It wasn’t just that he told the story of an age so audaciously (can anyone imagine a historian writing “The Age of Anything” today?); it was the subversive way he kept using the past to upbraid the present for its injustices. This was a fighter’s book. It began with its dukes in the air, a frontispiece quote about the eternal conflict between the House of Have and the House of Want, penned by Arthur’s hero, George Bancroft. It never looked back.
I never did either. I ended up writing on the same fecund period, and was bowled over with gratitude when Arthur wrote a blurb for my first book, about Jacksonian New York (a far duller one than he ever wrote). Then, to my amazement, my career began to follow some of the grooves he had carved at mid-century. I got little history articles accepted by newspapers and magazines, and ultimately was hired by the Clinton White House to be a speechwriter. Those were heady days. Arthur was still legendary in Washington, especially inside an administration that regarded the J.F.K. precedent with respect and recognition. Arthur came to White House events now and then, and though the decades had brought a little curvature, his wit was still rapier, and he could cast a spell over any dinner companion with his ability to summon a memory from the various pasts he had access to: 1962, or 1933, or 1837. Really, there’s no point in specifying—all of American history was seamless to him.
I remember attending a glittering party at Kay Graham’s house one night with another Clinton speechwriter. Arthur beamed at us and said, “The President’s Praetorian Guard!” I bet it had been said about him once, and he had filed the words away. Not many people walk around with perfectly spelled diphthongs in their head, but Arthur was special.
I stayed with the Clinton White House until the last day, then went off to teach in a tiny college on the eastern shore of Maryland. A few weeks later, the phone rang, and Arthur was inviting me to lunch in New York. Of course I went; there were no longer any world crises to respond to. As I recall, we didn’t even look at the menu. By a strange alchemy, two very strong martinis simply arrived at our table, and then two steaks. As my head began to swim, Arthur made his pitch: He was editing a new biographical series covering all the U.S. Presidents, and he thought I was the perfect person to do one of the biggest of the lot. I waited in breathless anticipation, but couldn’t quite understand when it seemed like he was saying “Martin Van Buren.”
Arthur was right, as usual. I had a great time with the project, digging up lots of new stories about a President almost no one had ever paid attention to. No one except Arthur—Van Buren was a special favorite of his. He had a deft touch as an editor, and the follow-up lunches were all highly entertaining, martini-flavored affairs. Our conversations coincided with the run-up to the war in Iraq, and it was so refreshing, in that invertebrate time, to hear a real thinker poking holes in all of the lies that the Bush administration was summoning, with pompous grandiloquence, to justify its invasion. He was especially sarcastic about the rationale that we had to rush to war in March 2003 because the weather would be too hot later in the year for our soldiers to feel comfortable.
One always pulls down the old books at a moment like this, seeking contact with a friend. In one of them, The Politics of Hope (1963), there’s an essay that Arthur wrote about Bernard De Voto, another gifted historian too seldom read. He ended the essay with a passage that De Voto had written about Mark Twain, but which also seemed to be about Arthur himself, and the great historian who’d inspired him. I repeat it here, with the same feeling of gratitude:
“Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerves give to wisdom. Say rather that, when he looked at the human race, he saw no ranked battalion of the angels …. Say that with a desire however warm and with the tenderness of a lover, he nevertheless understood that the heart of a man is wayward, a dark forest. Say that it is not repudiation he comes to at last, but reconciliation—an assertion that democracy is not a pathway to the stars but only the articles of war under which the race fights an endless battle with itself.”