By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Penguin Press, 894 pages, $40
During the heady days of the Kennedy administration, there was a brief White House vogue for the journals of the Duc de Saint-Simon, the 18th-century courtier whose gemlike observations captured small, highly entertaining moments at Versailles that otherwise would have been lost to history. Now it’s clear that an American Saint-Simon was right there—and for a long time after—recording everything for posterity, ever alert to the combination of tragedy and farce that made Saint-Simon so mesmerizing. This mountain of writing was created by a diminutive man, the historian and presidential aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and now stands as something more than his legacy. With its acerbic asides, its deep character studies and its barometer of political weather across half a century, it will guide historians for generations to come.
The publication of Schlesinger’s Journals brings to completion his life of nonstop commentary, beginning with an obscure book he published in 1939 about the New England reformer Orestes Brownson. Sixty-eight years later, we have the other bookend, and quite an end it is. For much of that time—from 1952 to 2000—he was adding to this growing mass of recollection, and just before he died, he revealed the treasure’s existence—a pile of manuscript notebooks, just above a small icebox in his office. Two of his sons, Stephen and Andrew Schlesinger, were asked to edit them into something publishable. They performed their charge with skill and dispatch, reducing 6,000 pages to 1,000 within three months. In effect, the new offering is volume two of the memoir their father published in 2000, A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. But these entries are closer to the moment, and more naked.
Schlesinger famously made popular a theory that American history is lived in cycles; but as this book reveals, so is life itself. The drama of these journals comes not from the rich and famous names meticulously recorded, but from the real sense he conveys of a life of passionate engagement, with all of its ups and downs. The medieval Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae) never ceases to spin for him, from exultation to catastrophe and back again.
The book begins slowly, with an entry on March 29, 1952, describing a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, an event that seems to come from a time nearly as antediluvian as Jefferson and Jackson themselves. From the beginning, Schlesinger is both participant and observer, writing speeches for Adlai Stevenson one minute, and interviewing President Truman the next. Even before he turned 35, he had found the crow’s nest that would allow him to scan the political horizon to the end of his journey.
The pace quickens with the introduction of his hero, John F. Kennedy, contemplating a run for the presidency, and eager for Schlesinger to rally to his standard. Wary at first, Schlesinger succumbs utterly to J.F.K.’s charm, and helpfully allows the reader to experience it along with him. Through his eyes, Kennedy is anything but a callow young man; rather, he seems to have evolved to a higher state of political understanding than anything we have seen since—bemused by the absurdities of his profession but tightly disciplined, self-deprecating but deeply charismatic, able to recognize dangerous tendencies all around him and yet stay above the fray, Kennedy was clearly a political prodigy of the highest order.
It comes as no surprise that J.F.K. would emerge from this book with an aura, but it’s refreshing to have his humanity restored as well. He is eminently real in these pages, endowed with serious liabilities along with unique gifts. In their first conversation, Kennedy discusses his physical frailty; at one point Schlesinger catches him putting on a back brace. But there’s no self-pity—quite the opposite.
These years are tautly described, from the electricity of the 1960 campaign to the knife’s edge of the Cuban missile crisis. Schlesinger conveys an almost physical sense of politics as a contact sport, from the dramatic events that unfolded with dizzying rapidity (Bay of Pigs, Berlin, nuclear test ban, civil rights) to the celebrity-packed parties that offered a tinkling intermezzo in the background. Schlesinger’s second worst day in the White House comes when he falls into a swimming pool at a wild soiree thrown by Ethel Kennedy—the worst, of course, is Nov. 22, 1963, which he renders with the visceral force one would expect.
In a way, it’s all downhill from there. No one has ever caught as well the awkwardness of the transition to L.B.J.’s administration, with its tinhorn pieties and exaggerated machismo. Schlesinger put up with it as long as he could, which was not very long. Soon, however, there was a new crusade, as Robert Kennedy became senator from New York, then a critic of L.B.J.’s Vietnam policy, and ultimately a presidential candidate in his own right. Schlesinger revives all of the awkwardness and glory of R.F.K.’s last campaign, with its half-starts and rapid acceleration near the end, like an airplane struggling to take off from an airstrip behind enemy lines. The entry for June 9, 1968 conveys such anguish that the publishers put it on the back cover. J.F.K. may have represented the family’s high-water mark, but R.F.K. won Schlesinger’s heart more deeply than anyone else he ever worked for.