Big-book man

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

When President Bill Clinton was undergoing his impeachment woes, true-blue allies were in short supply. As Republicans gleefully rallied around the Starr Report, many Democrats went into duck-and-cover mode. Denouncing impeachment as GOP overreach, they nevertheless admitted that Clinton’s behavior was wrong. Not, however, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. With his able co-conspirator historians Sean Wilentz and C. Vann Woodward, Schlesinger organized Historians in Defense of the Constitution. Signed by more than 400 historians, the galvanic circular issued by Schlesinger and company claimed that Starr had lowered the impeachment bar into the rat-infested gutter.

Columnists such as William Safire and David Broder mocked the Schlesinger-Wilentz-Woodward statement as a pro-Democratic stunt, to be expected, they said, from the historian who put the capital C in John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. And there was certainly some truth in their offhanded dismissal. But in “Journals: 1952-2000,” Schlesinger, who died earlier this year, explains that he never thought Clinton had lied in the first place. “I wonder whether there is not some ambiguity in the term ‘sexual relations,’ ” Schlesinger mused in an Aug. 5, 1998 entry. “Oral sex can leave a woman’s virginity intact; penetration is a completed sexual relationship. Norman Mailer says that there is an old Arkansas saying: ‘It ain’t a sin if you don’t stick it in.’ Newt Gingrich told a mistress that he preferred a blowjob because he could truthfully say that he had not slept with her. The President may well mean one thing by ‘sexual relations’; the special prosecutor another.”

Throughout “Journals” -- a deeply revelatory and no-holds-barred tour de force tome -- Schlesinger champions his friends and slays his enemies. Edited by his sons Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger (both distinguished scholars in their own right), the wily éminence grise shines radiantly through all of these pages, with occasional plunges into the taboo zone. Long rumored to be a treasure trove of high élan gossip, “Journals,” as published, equals just one-sixth of the full Schlesinger diary. It doesn’t disappoint. One hopes all of Schlesinger’s logs will be published someday, but “Journals” is a fine baptism-by-fire for the general reader. Selections are included from a wide-angled scope of 48 years; mysteriously, however, 1999 is not represented.

Anybody who ever lunched with Schlesinger in Georgetown or Manhattan will surely be flipping to the index, many in panicked fashion, to see if their loose banter over soup on some Tuesday or Thursday has now been enshrined for the ages in print. “Inevitably, the candor of some of these reflections may strike friends and acquaintances as indiscreet,” Schlesinger’s sons write in an instructive introduction. “That is unavoidable in such annals.”


The uncensored tone of “Journals” is that of the honest, Harvard-educated man of letters trying to make sense of the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Although Schlesinger clearly models himself after Henry Adams, there is a heavy touch of Thomas Wolfe in these musings, an earnest intellectual battling against and for the currency of political power and high-society access as he simultaneously refuses to abandon his rock-ribbed liberal convictions. The juggling act was harder than his friends supposed. Winning book awards, we’re reminded in “Journals,” is not necessarily a lucrative proposition. As late as 1987, in fact, when Schlesinger was a household name, he writes of struggling to survive in the fast-buck Manhattan social swirl where he was often the toast of the town, lamenting that he was “perennially broke” and unable to “possess a savings account.”

Through hard work, however, Schlesinger always avoided the debtor’s prison, writing such classics as “A Life in the 20th Century” well into his 80s. Astonishingly, Schlesinger consistently delivered the big book, decade after decade, always determined to be part of the consciousness of his times. And he relished influencing presidential elections, CIA directives and White House policy initiatives. He also made sport of spinning the enduring legacies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Robert Kennedy and, to a lesser degree, Bill and Hillary Clinton. (On the other hand, his disdain for Jimmy Carter knew no bounds.) Throughout Schlesinger’s storied career his proximity to the greatest Democratic politicians of his lifetime allowed him to have unparalleled insights into their multifaceted character traits.

Take, for example, Schlesinger’s explanation of the differences between the two assassinated Kennedy brothers. It’s the finest thumbnail sketch on the subject I’ve ever read: “JFK, one sensed, was always a skeptic and an ironist; he had understood the complexity of things since birth. RFK began as a true believer; he acquired his sense of the complexity of things from hard experience. He remained a true believer to the end but at a far deeper level; he had long since shucked away the eternal criteria and the received simplifications and got down as far as one can in politics to the human meaning of things. RFK had an astonishing capacity to identify himself with the casualties and victims of our society. When he went among them, these were his children, his scraps of food, his hovels. JFK was urbane, imperturbable, always in control, invulnerable, it seemed, to everything, except the murderer’s bullet.”

Politics, however, was only one side of Schlesinger. His abiding love of fiction populates much of “Journals.” Whether it’s his dislike of Thomas Pynchon or his vicious feud with Gore Vidal or his kinship with Mailer, Schlesinger enjoys throwing himself in with the literati. Thin-skinned to bad reviews or put-downs that called him the Kennedys’ “court-historian,” Schlesinger settles old scores with blood shooting straight from his eyes like a horned toad provoked. Joan Didion, for example, is a “viperfish, whispering little creature . . . a breathy, faux-sensitive writer” and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is demeaned as a “sour Irish drunk.” Writers who try to smear his reputation -- Seymour Hersh, Nigel Hamilton and Joe McGinniss, among others -- get walloped even harder. “Enemies,” he writes. “I reflected the other day on the people who go out of their way to attack me, dragging my name into irrelevant contexts in order to make what they regard as devastating insults. . . . I wish they were more distinguished.”


Perhaps because “Journals” is being published on what would have been Schlesinger’s 90th birthday, the net effect generated from reading this book is melancholia, nostalgia for a simpler, non-politically correct, pre-YouTube nation. Today, of course, political blogs are ubiquitous. “Journals,” however, is something different. Schlesinger was of the old school that corresponded and journaled with a bon-vivant spirit; his prose sparkles like fine wine. One of our last Renaissance writers, he never made the psychic leap into the hurly-burly world of postmodern conceit. After seeing director Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” Schlesinger, for example, grew depressed. “I find I have no faith, none at all, in progress,” he wrote during the Reagan years. “I do not expect a better future. I shudder when I contemplate the world in which Richard grows up. I pray that I am wrong, but nearly every amenity of life has declined in my lifetime. Only technology has improved, and even technology disappoints, breaks down, and is impossible to get repaired.”

Then, Schlesinger, conscious of sounding grumpy, added this to his sad lament. “However,” he writes, forcibly cheering up, “I eat the best meals I can get, drink Jack Daniel’s, smoke Havana cigars and prepare to enjoy life while it is still possible.” *