The in­suf­fer­able ar­ro­gance of lib­eral his­to­rian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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