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Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Passes at Age 89

March 1, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was one of this country’s most prominent historians, a proud liberal, prolific author, and one-time presidential adviser.

Born in Ohio, the son of an historian, Schlesinger graduated from Harvard and spent a stint during World War II at the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA.

In 1945, his groundbreaking best-seller about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, “The Age of Jackson,” won the 27-year-old a Pulitzer Prize. In 1946, Schlesinger helped found the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action.

His 1949 book, “The Vital Center,” advocated a marriage of liberalism at home with anti-communist policies abroad. The 1950s saw Schlesinger continue combining scholarship with activism, teaching at Harvard, embarking on his multi-volume series, “The Age of Roosevelt,” and advising the ill-starred presidential campaigns of Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

In 1961, he was tapped to join John F. Kennedy’s White House staff as a special adviser, becoming a trusted confidante of the family and unofficial court philosopher. His 1965 memoir of those years, “A Thousand Days,” won both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards.

During the Nixon years, Schlesinger’s 1973 book, “The Imperial Presidency,” warned of the dangers of unbridled executive power and coined a phrase still widely used today.

In 1979, his biography “Robert Kennedy and His Times” won him his second National Book Award.

Over all these years, Schlesinger also kept up a fierce schedule, writing on issues of the day for publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair. And he was sought out to comment on these issues on television, including on the NewsHour. This clip is from the late 1980s.

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR., Historian: A realistic president recognizes that he is president within the Constitution and that the Constitution provides the framework in which he can exert considerable power.

But the power depends on persuasion, and it depends on consent. And our great presidents have, on the whole, exerted that power within the Constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Schlesinger had been in ill health of late. But last December, he sat for a Vanity Fair photo shoot in his New York apartment, with surviving members of the Kennedy administration, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

Schlesinger suffered a heart attack at a restaurant in New York City last night. He was 89 years old.

'A first-rate thinker'

And for more on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I'm joined by Robert Dallek, a historian of the presidency and of foreign affairs. His writings include an award-winning book about Franklin Roosevelt, a two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a biography of Robert Kennedy. His latest book is "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power."

Bob Dallek, welcome, thank you for coming in. What made Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., such a standout in your craft, in your field?

ROBERT DALLEK, Presidential Historian: Well, it was, Margaret, the fact that he not only wrote for historians, but he wrote for a huge audience in this country. He's probably the best-known historian of the 20th century by a mass audience, because his books were read.

So many academic historians write for each other. That's not a bad thing, but Arthur had this capacity to communicate, to paint these beautiful pen portraits.

He once said to me -- I asked him why he wasn't going to do more, or was he going to do more in his "Age of Roosevelt" series -- he'd done three volumes -- and he said "Well, Bob," he said, "I'm not going to be able to exceed what you've done with Roosevelt's foreign policy."

And I told him, I said, "Arthur, that's so generous of you, because you'll paint these brilliant pen portraits of all these characters that I was not able to paint." And so he had that talent, that extraordinary ability.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, was he a first-rate thinker?

ROBERT DALLEK: He was, indeed. And, you know, John Kennedy found him an enormously appealing man, because he was a first-rate thinker, but he was also a bon vivant, someone who had a kind of spirit, a kind of elan that Kennedy valued, appreciated, and they had a kind of symbiotic relationship.

Of course, Robert Kennedy was Arthur's closer friend, and Arthur later wrote about him in great detail in the biography of Robert Kennedy.

But Kennedy valued him also because he wasn't simply a "yes" man. He didn't tell Kennedy what he wanted to hear. In that Bay of Pigs operation over Cuba, he told Kennedy that he thought it was a mistake, it was an error he was going to make.

And, afterwards, somebody said to Kennedy, "Well, you know, Arthur was the one who really kind of figured this out." And he said, "He better not go talking about this in public."

And Arthur was very loyal to Kennedy. He wouldn't go out and, you know, spill the beans, so to speak. There was no kiss-and-tell that way, but he was a great friend of the Kennedys.

Criticism for mixing roles

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he was criticized for mixing these two roles, historian/academic and political actor. And some of the critics said at the time that his books on John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy sort of glossed over some of the rough edges, that his analysis was colored.

Do you think, as an historian, that that was a valid criticism?

ROBERT DALLEK: Yes, I think it is valid criticism, and no one who spends time inside an administration -- be it a historian or politician close to a president -- is going to give you an entirely objective look at that administration.

And Arthur was mindful of that. Indeed, he very much believed in the proposition that history is argument without end. Nobody writes a definitive study of Kennedy or of any other politician or presidential administration.

And so he knew that his views of Kennedy, of both Kennedys, was somewhat partisan, somewhat drawn in the direction that others would be more critical of and that he wasn't going to tell all, so to speak. But he was also mindful of the fact that others would come along to write in more candid ways.

There's a diary, a very substantial diary. He was a very conscientious diarist. And I think historians are going to find a lot of very interesting material. I'm sad that he never finished the second volume of his memoirs. It's a loss, but we'll have those diaries, I'm sure, and I think it will be most revealing.

MARGARET WARNER: That's right, they're bringing them out in a few months.

ROBERT DALLEK: I didn't realize that.

In the center of American politics

MARGARET WARNER: I think I read that. Now, he also has been described -- as I just did -- as a liberal or historian of American liberalism. But his liberalism -- he actually distrusted extremes of both left and right.

ROBERT DALLEK: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain where he fits in the development of liberal thought.

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, it was famous, "The Vital Center." His understanding was that politicians who stood in the center of the country, who were not too far to the left or too far to the right, were perfect reflectors of American democracy with a small "d," and that this is the way he saw Franklin Roosevelt, who he admired so greatly. This is the way he saw John Kennedy.

And Nixon offended him because he broke rules, broke the laws, and went against the country's democratic traditions, that he was so high-handed. This was the imperial presidency, as Arthur coined that phrase. So he was very much devoted to this proposition that you stood in the center of American politics and that you reflected the broadest possible mass.

An influential public intellectual

MARGARET WARNER: Was he influential as a political thinker? In other words, we know he was an actor, and we know he wrote about figures of that sort. But was he -- did he actually have an influence?

ROBERT DALLEK: I think he did have an influence. His last book on war and American presidents was highly critical of the current administration, of the decision to go into that Iraq war.

And I think, when historians go back and look at the criticism and objections that will be voiced by many in the future about this war, that Schlesinger's book will be seen as a kind of landmark, something that helped to launch this expression of opposition and dissent.

MARGARET WARNER: He has been described in one piece I read today as one of the last great figures from the golden age of intellectuals. Do you agree with that?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, I do, in a way, because what you had was -- see, he came from a tradition that began with Woodrow Wilson, the idea that you had public intellectuals, academics who would go into an administration or help an administration to deal with insoluble problems, as Arthur himself put it.

And, of course, FDR was the brain trust, and that was Kennedy's idea, in bringing Arthur Schlesinger into his administration. The notion that you have people who are more than just political animals, who are out there writing books, thinking about the big issues of the time, and Arthur was very much that way.

And Kennedy was drawn to him because of that. And Schlesinger was drawn to Kennedy because he saw Kennedy as a thinking president, as someone who himself had written books and was keenly interested in the country's history.

I mean, I could regale you with countless anecdotes about how Kennedy used history to make some very thoughtful judgments on what he should do in foreign affairs. And I don't have the inside evidence, but it could well be that he and Schlesinger would talk about these matters.

MARGARET WARNER: Robert Dallek, thanks so much.

ROBERT DALLEK: My pleasure.