Knowing It All
Historians of the American presidency are notorious for composing lists. The five greatest presidents . . . the five near greats . . . the bottom five . . . the three most eminently forgettable . . . the two most unfairly neglected . . . The lists go on and on.
Now we learn that the historian of Democratic presidents (who not coincidentally kept putting the same on his master list of the greats) has a presidential list of one. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., biographer of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, confided to his journal something that he no doubt passed along to his intimate dinner guests and luncheon companions. Less a list than a category, it contained the name of the “only s#!t” ever to be elected by the American people. And that president would be . . . surprise, surprise, Richard Nixon.
Watergate and the Nixon presidency provided a healthy boost to a Schlesinger family bank account that we learn was not always up to the challenge of meeting the Schlesinger family needs. Ivy League income and best selling books can only be stretched so far—especially when you’re hanging with the Harrimans and the Kennedys and your trendy New York City neighborhood was upscale enough to be home to a former president. That, by the way, would be the same Richard Nixon, whose downfall happened to coincide with Schlesinger’s rather sudden discovery of The Imperial Presidency.
Curious, isn’t it, that the biographer of Jackson, Roosevelt II, and JFK waited until the darkness of the Nixon years to question an out-sized presidency. To be fair, those reservations began to surface before Nixon’s political resurrection of 1968. Bipartisan fellow that he could occasionally be, Schlesinger and his love affair with presidential power actually began to wane during the Johnson years.
Had it not been for another assassin’s bullet those same five plus years, momentous though they were, might have become little more than an interlude between Kennedy administrations. And if there had been a Robert Kennedy presidency, it’s more than likely that the Schlesinger romance with the American presidency would have been miraculously reborn, and any prior damning of the imperial presidency would have been delayed by at least eight years.
One more “had it not been” is in order here. Professor Schlesinger likely would have remained fulsome in his praise of presidential power, properly exercised and directed, during the Johnson years “had it not been” for the dramatic escalation of the American war in Vietnam.
As with so many others, it all comes back to the 1960s and Vietnam. The difference is that many of those others were a good deal younger than Professor Schlesinger at the time. For early baby boomers and those just a bit older, Vietnam was the formative political experience, not to mention the crucible through which subsequent American foreign policy decisions ought (and are) to be judged. This Schlesinger may have been a “junior,” but he was no boomer or near-boomer. Born in 1917, his formative experience was World War II, or the very war that helped solidify and make permanent the imperial presidency.
Where was the wrong turn taken? Was it President Washington’s suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion? Or President Jefferson’s unilateral purchase of Louisiana? Or President Jackson’s action against the Cherokees? How about President Polk’s duplicity that led to the Mexican War? Or should we look to one of Polk’s congressional critics. That would be President Lincoln, who was imperious enough to refuse to leave the Confederacy alone. If not a war, maybe it was progressivism in general or the New Deal in particular? Or the Fair Deal? Or the New Frontier? Or the Great Society?
We’re getting close, but we’re not there yet. Somehow or other, it all comes down to Vietnam. Never mind that Lyndon Johnson inherited the war from John Kennedy. Never mind that Johnson’s post-assassination “let us continue” plea did not distinguish between Kennedy’s foreign and domestic agendas. Never mind that the new President Johnson would have been savaged by the Kennedy-in-waiting had he moved to reverse the American course in Vietnam, which is to say the Kennedy commitment to South Vietnam.
Actually, Johnson seems to have made a favorable first impression on Schlesinger. The year was 1957, and the meeting between the Harvard historian and the senate majority leader had come at the latter’s request. It seems that LBJ was unhappy with his treatment at the hands of the liberal establishment. Hence his decision to administer the “Johnson treatment” to one of them. The professor came away at least semi-smitten: “I found him both more attractive, more subtle, and more formidable than I expected.” And more liberal? Here Schlesinger hesitates. But he was willing to concede that Johnson at least desired “to be on the liberal side” and “seemed quite annoyed that the organized liberals (did) not regard him as one of their own.”
Come 1960 and the Democratic national convention, Schlesinger was still an Adlai Stevenson man at heart. He was that when the convention opened, and he remained that when the convention ended. In fact, when the party (and the Kennedy machine) passed (rolled?) over Stevenson, something Schlesinger “greatly valued went out of national politics.” What that something was Schlesinger never quite makes clear. Stevenson was erudite and glib, but he certainly wasn’t an ADA-style liberal—especially on civil rights. In fact, on this soon-to-be critical issue Stevenson was a good deal more conservative than Johnson. So what was he? In the dreamy eyes of Arthur Schlesinger, Adlai Stevenson was a “profoundly civilized man,” as well as a man of “genuine modesty” (who therefore would have made a wonderfully non-imperial president?). Unlike Kennedy or Johnson, Stevenson had more than a minor case of “guilt” when it came to wielding power. As another platonic love of Schlesinger’s life put it at the time, Stevenson had a “political death wish.” That love was Lauren Bacall. But neither Bacall nor Schlesinger could spot any such wish emanating from JFK. If anything, a little dose of guilt might have done the nominee some good—at least in Schlesinger’s still-suspicious eyes. What was all too visible was JFK’s “will to victory and will to command.” At the time, this Stevenson man did not pen those words in praise of Senator Kennedy. He would feel—and think—differently in fairly short order.
And yet, something that Schlesinger dubbed the “Stevenson revolution” was in the air, and John Kennedy was its logical heir. That alleged “revolution” would be the transformation of the Democratic party of Harry Truman, who promised “benefits” to his constituents, into the Democratic party of John Kennedy, who demanded “sacrifices” of all citizens. That Schlesinger-defined transition led him to rationalize that it was Stevenson who emerged the “true victor” at the Democratic convention. Really? The guilt-ridden Stevenson? The Hamlet-like Stevenson? The diffident Stevenson? Would any of these Stevensons have been inclined to ask his fellow Americans to think in terms of what they might do for their country?
And Kennedy? He seemed to have “most of FDR’s lesser qualities.” Whether he possessed Franklin Roosevelt’s “greater qualities” remained to be seen. Kennedy did copy Roosevelt by tapping a Texan as his running mate. Prior to that selection Schlesinger had an “uneasy feeling” that LBJ would take the number two slot. After the fact, he pronounced the offer “brave and wise.” Perhaps this unreconstructed Stevenson man was already on his way to becoming a Kennedy man.
Come late 1955, Schlesinger is deep into plotting Stevenson’s second run for the White House. Always hopeful of a Democratic victory, he writes of a November strategy session that ended after midnight and resumed at mid-morning. By 1 PM it was time to adjourn “for drinks and Lauren Bacall.” Schlesinger does not tell us precisely what happened next, but he assures us in the very next line that “AES” (Adlai Ewing Stevenson) was “in good form.” Whether or not the candidate had been energized by the presence of Ms. Bacall cannot be established. But Stevenson did let what was left of his hair down by confiding to his inner circle know that he’d “really like to . . . attack the administration from A to Z.” Maybe it was that distinctive Bacall voice, quivering or otherwise, that put some zip into Adlai. But rest assured, his handlers quickly got him back in line. “You might like to do it,” one of them cautioned. “But you would hate to have done it.” Maybe so, or maybe not, depending upon the “it” in question.
Schlesinger did not become a Kennedy man in the full sense of that term until the candidate was the president-elect. Following his victory, Kennedy invited his soon-to-be favorite Harvard historian to join the administration as “some sort of roving reporter and trouble-shooter.” The real fun was about to begin.
Not that it was all willful fun and games. Right out of the chute, this lowly “trouble-shooter” was troubled by the Bay of Pigs operation. He was not able to stop it. He was not able to insert greater will into it. He was not able to prettify it. But when it was all over he was able to assign blame. The villain was . . . Dean Rusk, whose failure to convince his boss to “cancel the whole thing (was) almost the most reprehensible failure of all.” Almost? This is also Schlesinger’s adverb of choice when it comes to his summary judgment on the entire fiasco, as in the president “almost overruled all of his senior advisers.” What happened to that magical “will to command?”
Schlesinger’s take on the Bay of Pigs actually (as opposed to almost) set the tone for his take on Kennedy foreign policy in general—especially Kennedy foreign policy miscues. When in doubt, pin the blame on Rusk—otherwise identifiable as the plodding bureaucrat who got the job that Stevenson should have had.
Sometimes the president himself wasn’t in evidence at all. This roving reporter avoids all, well, almost all, suggestion of Kennedy’s roving eye. There would, however, be the periodic dinner conversation or policy discussion following which the president would make “one of his quiet disappearances.” One wonders what, if anything, Schlesinger might have wondered—then or later—about the president’s discreet leave takings. At least no names were mentioned.
Marilyn Monroe does make an appearance, but only in conjunction with Robert Kennedy and his brother’s roving reporter. It seems that Ms. Monroe was more compelling than Ms. Lollobrigida—at least to the extent that “Bobby and I (were) engaged in mock competition for her.” Beyond her obvious attributes, Schlesinger could see only that there was a “terrible unreality to her.” Carrying on a conversation with her was “like talking to someone under water”—or perhaps somewhat akin to a chat with Dean Rusk.
When Schlesinger wasn’t actually talking to someone under water (during one of those celebrated Bobby Kennedy pool parties), he did find time to jot down notes on the Cuban missile crisis, numerous civil rights crises, and assorted Kennedy administration dealings with business leaders (often “enlightened” men who took “hopeless” political positions) and labor leaders (generally “mediocre and selfish” characters who took “enlightened” policy positions). But the whole thing was over almost as suddenly as it had begun.
As stunned and saddened as he no doubt was by the assassination, Schlesinger did not—and yet did—depart from the Kennedy party line on what had happened in Dallas. “It will be a long time before this nation is as nobly led . . .” As to the motive of the assassin, he would only offer that the “wages of hate are fearful.” Nothing in that oblique reference suggests that Oswald was what he was, namely a man of the left. Then again, nothing in the line challenges the then-conventional Kennedy family wisdom that right-wing hatred was behind the president’s death. To this extent, there was nothing in the private Schlesinger notes that would have angered either the president’s widow or his attorney general brother. But before dropping the whole subject the journal keeper permitted himself a note of hope of sorts that amounted to a concession of sorts: LBJ might turn out to be “more liberal” than JFK.
If liberalism is to be defined in ADA terms, then a liberal anti-communist of Schlesinger’s stripe ought to have had reason for optimism. After all, the essence of ADA liberalism was big-government liberalism, whether that meant prosecuting the Cold War abroad or advancing the civil rights agenda at home. Johnson, a “virtuoso” when it came to wielding power, was more than willing to proceed on both fronts at once.
The new President Johnson may not have had much by way of “intellectual curiosity.” (Is this the standard charge of east coast liberals against Texas presidents they dislike?) Johnson may have been “living intellectually off the Kennedy years.” He may have lacked the “FDR–JFK gift” of being able to keep a “great many things in his mind at the same time.” But at least he wanted to be a “great president,” and he understood that such a president must do (guess what) “great things.” Goodness knows, Johnson tried. Maybe the problem was that he tried too hard—or at least on too many fronts.
For Schlesinger the problem was that doing great things, militarily speaking, in Vietnam was not exactly what the professor seems to have had in mind. It was perhaps something that a safely re-elected President Kennedy might have had in mind during his second term. Or perhaps not. It is also possible that JFK would have used his anticipated 1964 victory to abandon South Vietnam. No one knows.
What Schlesinger does know is that LBJ “crossed the Rubicon” with his mid-1965 decision to escalate the American war in Vietnam. What he would like to believe is that JFK would not have made such a decision. But of course no one knows.
What also cannot be known is what Senator Robert Kennedy might have said and done had his brother’s successor taken a very different course in Vietnam in 1965. Had President Johnson decided to renege on the American commitment to South Vietnam, a commitment that predated his predecessor’s administration, but a commitment that his predecessor had significantly increased, it’s entirely conceivable that the dead president’s brother might well have attacked the Johnson administration for abandoning a vital American ally and a very winnable war. But of course we will never know.
What we do know is that American liberalism in general and Schlesinger in particular took a very different turn in the aftermath of the fateful decision of the Johnson administration to stand and fight in Vietnam. That turn was away from liberal anti-communism as his ADA had defined it. It was a turn that might have been temporary, but wasn’t. It was also a turn that might have edged him toward a pre-Eisenhower version of the Republican party, but didn’t. (In these pages we learn that Schlesinger had long had a liking for Robert Taft and his “pawky charm.”)
Actually, this reflexive Democrat was tempted to vote Republican in one post-Johnson presidential election. No, the year was not 1980, and the tempter was not Ronald Reagan. The year was actually 1967, or well before Schlesinger could have known that the “only s#!t” would be the GOP nominee; and then he only toyed with voting Republican because he thought it might be the “only way to bring the war to an end.”
By the spring of 1968, Schlesinger’s flirtation with Republicans was clearly over. Robert Kennedy was in the race as an anti-war candidate. Hubert Humphrey may have been a “nice man,” but he was “fatally weak at critical moments” and congenitally “corrupted by a desire to please.” The other Minnesotan, Senator Eugene McCarthy, may have been incorruptible, but he was given to bouts of “self-pity and bitterness.” That left the “profoundly idealistic” Robert Kennedy, this man of “commitment,” who might well have been president had “they” not killed him.
Once again a Kennedy was dead. Once again the hated and hateful “they” had done it. And once again Arthur Schlesinger refused to name names, much less to fess up to the obvious, namely that the hated and hateful American right had not done this deed either. If something went out of American politics when the Democrats spurned Stevenson in 1960, something oozed out of Schlesinger with the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968. To be sure, Teddy was still very much on the scene, and Chappaquiddick was not yet a household term. But Teddy, pre- or post-Chappaquiddick, was never Bobby or Jack.
Schlesinger tried to make himself madly for McGovern, but by October, 1972, he had to concede that he’d “never been so depressed about a presidential election.” Depressed or no, he remained astute enough to note the “crazy optimism” that surrounded the McGovern campaign. Astute or otherwise, he remained crazy enough to convince himself that a “surge will come.” Even on election eve his “instinct” told him that the result “will be close.” It wasn’t.
Four years later, the result was much closer, but no less depressing. After much internal debate, Schlesinger refused to choose between Carter and Ford. Carter was a “mean little man,” but at least Ted Kennedy would be around to serve as the administration’s “ideological conscience.” Carter was an unholy combination of “righteousness and ambiguity,” but at least Walter Mondale would be on hand to provide “visual reassurance to liberals.” Carter will “probably be a good president,” but he “reminds me of Richard Nixon.” In the end, Schlesinger did not vote. He surely had no reason to be tempted to vote for a Republican now that the “miserable war in Vietnam” had come to its “miserable end.” But what was the alternative? The prospect of casting his ballot for a candidate who “believed that Adam and Eve existed” was simply too much.
For the first and only time in his voting life, this presidential historian sat out a presidential election. George McGovern did not. For that matter, Schlesinger divulges that the entire McGovern clan was of the same mind. They all voted against the “mean little man” and for Gerry Ford.
From a safe distance, Schlesinger observed the accumulating collapse that was Carter presidency with a “certain dismal relish.” Early on, he had allowed himself some small hope that Carter’s “instincts (were) better in foreign affairs.” This was 1977 and the year of Carter’s Notre Dame “inordinate fear of communism” speech. So perhaps Schlesinger was seeking to establish a link between the actual Jimmy Carter and the John Kennedy of his memory, or the President Kennedy who tried to “move us beyond the Cold War.” Apparently, it never occurred to Arthur Schlesinger that the best way to move beyond the Cold War would be to win it.
But that gets ahead of our story. By 1979 Jimmy Carter was hard at work doing his level best to prepare the way for what Schlesinger hoped would be another Kennedy presidency. The trouble was that Ted Kennedy didn’t seem to want the job and certainly didn’t “detest Carter as RFK did LBJ.” The larger trouble—at least for Schlesinger—was that the bumbling Carter was actually preparing the way for a Reagan presidency. In the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis, Carter’s manifest “incompetence deepens every day.” It turned out that man from Georgia had “no real instinct for foreign policy” after all.
If the 1972 election was “depressing,” its 1980 counterpart was “idiotic.” What about the Schlesinger treatment of the ensuing Reagan presidency? How about depressing and idiotic? Not that the professor was unwilling to give the president a chance. The “Reagan crowd” may have been “more doctrinaire” than even Arthur Schlesinger had anticipated, but the president at least deserved a “chance to play his hand.” Besides (are you ready for this?), it’s “not a bad idea for government agencies to have to make do on smaller budgets.” Then again (you won’t be surprised by this), if Reagan fails, the country will have gotten this “free market therapy out of its system.”
A year later Schlesinger opted to forgo any judgment on Reagan’s foreign policy instincts in favor of a simple pronouncement that it “gets scarier all the time.” He was similarly dismissive of past and present Democratic Cold Warriors who were inclined to side with the ex-Democrat in the White House. In other words, those who continued to defend what Arthur Schlesinger once defended, namely a foreign policy of liberal anti-communism, were reduced to the “utterly opportunistic” (Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and the “odious and despicable” (Norman Podhoretz) and the “dangerous” (Henry Jackson).
Besides, those who worried about the Soviet Union had nothing to worry about. The USSR was an “increasingly bourgeois” society in which the “consumer ethos was on the march.” As of 1982, Schlesinger had convinced himself that those who thought that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse were “kidding themselves.” It was a judgment he would not abandon, even as the Soviet Union unraveled. And when the unraveling was over and the Soviet Union was no more, the best that Arthur Schlesinger could offer was that the left and right were both wrong! In a rare thrust at even-handedness, he dismissed left-wingers, who believed in the “superiority, moral and economic,” of communism and right-wingers, who believed that “Soviet communism was a static monolith . . .” Really? Having easily dispatched of those straw men, a somewhat harder task remained. Were ADA liberals, like Scoop Jackson, wrong when they stayed the course? And were ex-liberals, like Ronald Reagan, and unconverted conservatives, like William F. Buckley, wrong to believe that the monolith could be overcome?
Schlesinger’s refusal to confront such questions is revealed in his commentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was the moment of vindication for those early cold warriors, those embattled liberal anti-communists, those Schlesingerian ADAers of the late 1940s. This should have been a time of great celebration and pure joy, not to mention simple clarity. And it was. But the best that Professor Schlesinger could summon was a note to himself that he had been right all along. And what was he right about? The collapse of the wall, nay the collapse of communism, was proof positive that he had been “right to argue” that the United States was right to stay with course in the Cold War. No, that’s not it. How about this? The collapse of communism was proof of the virtues of a bipartisan foreign policy. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, “we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans.” No, that’s not it either. In the end, victory in the Cold War proved to Arthur Schlesinger that he had been “right to argue the inscrutability of history”! Apparently, it was one thing to be carried away by Lauren Bacall and quite another to let yourself go at such an historic moment.
One can only wonder how Arthur Schlesinger might have reacted had he stayed the course. Would he have retreated to the “inscrutability of history” had the collapse of communism been the culmination of his own forty year effort to support victory in the Cold War? It’s not likely. In truth, there are broad hints in these pages that Schlesinger was anxious to abandon the effort before the Johnsonian escalation in Vietnam. Witness his conviction that John Kennedy was something other than a cold warrior, as well as his attempt to convince himself that the early Jimmy Carter was the second coming of JFK, anti-cold warrior.
In any case, missing in all of these pages, pages which plod through the Clinton years, is any hint or inference or suggestion that maybe, just maybe, Ronald Reagan and his “scary” foreign policy might have had a little something to do with winning the Cold War. Perhaps he was too busy being “charmed” by Hillary or “infuriated” by Bill and his signing of the welfare reform act. Perhaps he was preoccupied with trying to plumb the depths of Al Gore. (In one of the most insightful lines of the lot, Schlesinger reveals that Clinton’s veep reminded him of another head case who had once held that post: Henry Wallace.) Perhaps he was devoting too much time to a rear guard action against a “so-called historian” named Thomas Reeves who was questioning JFK’s character by “dredging up” all the “sexual stuff.” Or perhaps it was because Bianca Jagger seems to have shouldered aside Lauren Bacall as the celebrity woman in his life.
Or maybe it all comes down to not having what he thought his first political hero had too much of, namely a sense of guilt. If only Adlai had passed some of that on to a young Arthur Schlesinger, maybe, just maybe, an aging Arthur Schlesinger might have been able to swallow enough pride to concede that which he refused to concede even in the privacy of his journal. All these pages, all these words, and yet not a hint anywhere among them that he had ever taken a wrong turn—or his opponents a right one. G. K. Chesterton captured the problem long ago. Pride really is the “poison in every other vice.”
Posted: April 5, 2010
Rescuing the Past
Isabel A. Nelson