The Age of Schlesinger, Convened and Recalled

He was a man who loved American history, tall women, small children, dry martinis, big steaks, epic movies and every kind of Kennedy. On Monday morning, the old guard of liberal New York turned out to celebrate all of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s passions in the Great Hall of Cooper Union—a location chosen because it was there that Abraham Lincoln had made his case against slavery, 147 years ago.

Whether you were studying the podium or the audience, the whole thing felt like a magnificent last hurrah. Up front were Ted Sorensen, Bill vanden Heuvel, Norman Mailer, Teddy Kennedy, Sean Wilentz, Lauren Bacall, Bill Clinton and Schlesinger children, stepchildren and grandchildren. Listening to them were the historian’s widow, Alexandra, as well as Frances Fitzgerald, Tom Brokaw, Hendrik Hertzberg, Bob Morgenthau, David Dinkins, Calvin Trillin, Carl Bernstein, Kevin and Gail Buckley, Ethel, Bobby Jr. and Kerry Kennedy, Sydney Blumenthal, Betsy Gotbaum, Osborn Elliott, Jimmy Greenfield, Nancy White Hector, Robert Caro, Patricia Bosworth, Mike Wallace and hundreds of other Democrats, almost all of them over 50.

Ted Sorensen, his eyesight failing, had to be escorted to the podium by Bill vanden Heuvel, but the audience was mesmerized. “Some asked whether he was compatible with the Kennedy White House fitness buffs,” Mr. Sorensen remembered, transporting everyone back to those fabled 1,000 days. “They did not understand Arthur’s role on White House track team: He was the designated javelin catcher.”

Norman Mailer, who needed two canes, said, “We had very little in common except we had a hell of a lot of respect for each other.” But they also shared a love of very tall women, which made them both members of the “small jockey club.”

Schlesinger’s stepson, Peter Allan, remembered trembling when he was summoned to the great man’s study after the boy’s headmaster had written home to complain about his bad behavior at prep school. The trembling ended when Arthur took out a red pen to correct all of the headmaster’s grammatical errors, before shoving the amended letter back in an envelope to return to its sender. Then he told Peter: “Behave better in class!”

“It was a wonderful, righteous funeral,” said Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker, whose book was one of the thousands that Schlesinger had blurbed. “He did a wonderful job of it, too; the blurbs were not all exactly the same. It was like receiving darshan—that’s what Gandhi used to hand out. The thing that came through at that memorial was this unfailing joyfulness; he was really a marvel on every level.”

Carl Bernstein marveled: “They were a generation of leaders who were firm in their beliefs about what the American system and liberalism are about, and who spoke with an articulateness and humaneness that seems so absent from today’s debate. Sorensen and Bill vanden Heuvel—you sat there through the whole event saying, ‘Why don’t we have people like this today?’ What you saw was a shared ethos that is informed by Whitman as much as it is informed by more classic political philosophers. We are in a really terrible time in which the ahistoricism—particularly of the current administration—is catastrophic. If any of those folks have read history, they sure have forgotten it.”

Schlesinger was one of the two writers most responsible for burnishing the Kennedy legend; Teddy White—his neighbor on East 64th Street—was the other one. The Kennedys turned out in force to return the favor. Teddy recalled a crucial assist from Schlesinger when he first ran for the Senate from Massachusetts in 1962. After a Harvard law professor named Mark A. De Wolfe Howe denounced the candidate for having no qualification except unvarnished ambition, Schlesinger replied: “Relax, Mark. Ted’s a candidate for the United States Senate, not the faculty of Harvard Law School.”

Schlesinger was also a man who had attended at least 10,000 cocktail parties. “He loved all that, and I think that was irrespective of the politics of the people who were there,” said Ron Steel, who is Walter Lippmann’s biographer. “The social part was a big part of the memorial: It was a social event as much as a political event.”

Bill Clinton said he had been Schlesinger’s student from afar, reading The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt, and he recalled Lincoln’s speech from the same podium a century and a half ago. Both Lincoln and Schlesinger had worked hard for a “more perfect union,” said the former President.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz called Lincoln “Arthur’s kind of Republican” and said that Schlesinger “was the most formidable American historian of his generation.”

Mr. Wilentz remembered him as “generous, stylish, as full of wonder and energy as he was empty of self-importance …. But he would hate to see me and the rest of us here continue to be sad when there is so much work to do and so much life to live.”

Then Mr. Wilentz concluded: “Writing about the 1950’s—it could just as easily been the 1920’s or the 1880’s—Arthur, the historian of hope, said that ‘from the vantage point of the 60’s, the 50’s, instead of marking a stage in the decline and fall of the American republic,’ proved an interlude ‘in which the American people collected itself for greater exertions and higher splendors in the future.’

“So it was,” said Mr. Wilentz, “and so it will be.”