The insufferable arrogance of liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
After reading the more than 850 pages extracted from nearly half a century of the journals kept by the late eminent historian and pundit Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., some lines by W.H. Auden kept running through my mind:
“Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places.”
It’s not that Schlesinger did not have a personal life, nor is it absent from this journal. One wife is eventually exchanged for another, to whom there are uxorious references sprinkled through much of the book; children are born and they proceed both to exasperate and delight; he mentions his weight, his diet and a height that shrinks as he ages; he expresses feelings. But the overall tone is of portentousness, self-importance, pompousness.
If he is revealing his inner self in these pages, it is remarkably similar to the outer one with which it has been impossible over these many decades to be unfamiliar with. You can hear those pursed lips above the ubiquitous bow tie utter every phrase. Instead of W.B. Yeats’ “sixty-year-old smiling public man,” we have in this book the all-too-often insufferable tones of a smirking public man.
It is hard to imagine that self-doubt ever really bothered him. He uttered each pronouncement as if he were the incarnation of the oracle at Delphi, but he surveyed the world all too often from New York’s Century Club and other watering holes of likeminded folk. During the presidential election of 1968, Schlesinger huffed the following:
“I cannot ever support Nixon, whom I regard as the greatest [expletive deleted] in 20th century American politics (‘the 20th century’ bit is purely scholarly caution; I cannot at the moment think of anyone in the 19th century quite meeting Nixon’s combination of sanctimoniousness and squalor).”
And woe betide anyone inside his magic circle who deviates from the Schlesinger version:
“I discover among New York intellectuals a curious softness towards Nixon . . . David Halberstam and I got into a momentarily angry argument about this the other night at John Gunther’s, Halberstam insisting that he could never forgive Humphrey for Chicago and that Nixon wasn’t really so bad after all; hadn’t Bobby Kennedy changed through the years. I understand that Barbara Epstein of ‘The New York Review of Books’ is strongly for Nixon. Last night at Peter Duchin’s table at El Morocco, I got this nonsense at considerable length from Bob Silvers: Nixon is really not so bad, and he will get us out of the war in Vietnam sooner than anyone else! As Alexandra [the second Mrs. Schlesinger] said, anyone predicting a year ago that Silvers, Halberstam, and Barbara Epstein would be shilling for Nixon would have been considered loony. As I say, the ignorance/arrogance of New York intellectuals when it comes to politics is beyond belief.”
Where is the thoughtfulness you might expect from a historian, or the ability to look deeply into issues, or some wisdom? No, if you disagree with the great Schlesinger, you are spouting nonsense. Did it never occur to him that the words ignorance and arrogance that he applied to those New York intellectuals with whom he disagrees fit the one uttering them as well? Probably not: In the mental cocoon he took with him wherever he went, there wasn’t a lot of fresh air.
So why then read the bloviations of a self-satisfied, closed-minded pundit? Partly, I suppose, to see if this was really all there was to the man. But on a more positive note, because there are scattered through the arid soil of these pages, well, if not exactly gems, surely some worthwhile nuggets.
There are amusing little observations from time to time. Finding himself with Elizabeth Taylor, looking “darkly handsome but perhaps a little fat” among other $1,000 contributors to Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign, Schlesinger reports that the future president “showed more humor than I expected. When Elizabeth Taylor asked a question, he said that he first wanted to say how honored he was to have a question from her and that he had done his best to keep his mind on the question while she asked it.”
On more serious matters, Schlesinger can remind one that he was a vigorous exponent of Cold War liberalism, an ideology that had a lot to do with his becoming the house intellectual of the Kennedy presidency. In discussing Lilian Hellman, he is careful in every reference to her to mention her Stalinism: It is clear just how rebarbative that was — and it remained so — to him. His loyalty to John and Robert Kennedy and to Adlai Stevenson is touching; he apologizes for being too hard on Stevenson just because he has made some mild criticisms of him.
Unfortunately, there is too little of this sort of thing and too much of Schlesinger just being arrogant. Commenting on Ronald Reagan, he could never resist the temptation to bash him — “loony” is a typical adjective — and writing about the 1985 air raid on Libya, he wrote:
“The polls show overwhelming support for Reagan’s bombing of Libya, but nearly everyone I have encountered is against it. This is no doubt a commentary on the restricted circles in which I move.”
By the time you’ve read these “Journals 1952-2000,” you know that Schlesinger valued the opinions of people in those “restricted circles” more highly than those reflected in any polls, but that he rated his own most highly of all.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.