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The Guardian of Liberalism

America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

Sitting in his office at the City University of New York, Arthur Schlesinger judges himself harshly. "I've dissipated too much of my life in doing things which are totally ephemeral," he says.

Schlesinger's wall holds only one picture--a portrait of the philosopher who still inspires him, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Visitors must talk over the piles of books sitting on his desk. Most were sent by publishers. Most look unopened. Schlesinger is busy writing his own book, his memoirs, but regrets that the most appropriate title is unavailable. "The best title for a memoir I know has already been taken by [English cultural critic] Malcolm Muggeridge--Chronicles of Wasted Time. As Benjamin Franklin said, 'Lost time can never be found.' "

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. is 77 years old and has authored 16 books. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, first in history in 1945 for The Age of Jackson, then 20 years later in biography for A Thousand Days, his portrait of the Kennedy admini tration. When he wasn't distracted by ephemera, Schlesinger found time to graduate Harvard and attend Cambridge, and he later became a Harvard junior fellow. He served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, then went back to Harvard as an associate, and later full professor. He was a member of Adlai Stevenson's campaign staff in 1956, then in 1960 he campaigned for John F. Kennedy, and served as a special assistant to the president in the Kennedy White House. In 1967, Schlesinger was appointed Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate School.

What a slacker.

"The trouble with my life is I always found too many things enjoyable," Schlesinger explains in an almost hushed tone. Cigars are among those pleasures. "Anything I can get my hands on that's Cuban," he confides, and happily accepts three Cohiba Esplendidos from a visitor. They should last him a week.

"We're all smoking cigars less. Fidel's given it up. Art Buchwald's nearly given it up. I smoke sparingly, but I can't give it up," Schlesinger admits with a slight grin.

"Though cigars are safer than cigarettes, even with cigars you can overdo it. I asked Castro why he gave it up. First I noticed that he was not smoking as much as he used to. He would light a cigar and let it go out and sort of keep one cigar going for several hours of discussion." Schlesinger remembers saying to Castro, " 'I notice you don't seem to be smoking so much.' He said, 'That's the last thing I would give up for the Revolution.' But then he did give it up." At another meeting in Cuba, Schlesinger recalls saying, " 'You seem to have stopped smoking.' He said, 'Yes. This is my 87th day.' Or something like that. 'My doctors told me I was setting a bad example for the young.' "

Schlesinger's affection for Cuban products does not extend to the island's dictator. "I think [Castro is] a great performer. You get this wonderful cascade of propositions and arguments and exhortations and jokes and so on. The oddity is that this man who seemed to be the most flexible, enlightened and bright of the Communist leaders, now that Kim Il-Sung is gone, is the last Communist dinosaur. He's a rigid true believer."

"True believer" could describe Schlesinger as well. He is an unrepentant liberal; not just a Democrat, but a founder, in 1947, of Americans for Democratic Action. Ask him his philosophy and he will simply tell you that he is a "New Dealer." His father was a historian who, with his mother, was always involved in progressive social causes. Historian John Morton Blum refers to Schlesinger as a "Tory Democrat"--someone, traditionally of the upper class, who believes those in power have a responsibility to use it on behalf of the people. From his chosen perch at the epicenter of politics and public policy, Schlesinger's insights are powerful, and with the air of a human encylopedia, he can provide succinct analysis of the challenges the United States faces. Above all, Schlesinger believes strongly in "affirmative government" as the only realistic means by which the country can solve the big problems.

The biggest problem the country faces, in Schlesinger's opinion, is race. The talk these days of a "color-blind" America, an admirable goal, raises the volume in his voice. "The people who say we must have a color-blind America have not been notable in the past for their support of racial justice or civil rights or their personal relations with minorities," he says. "Most of the people who use that term aren't color-blind. I mean, there's a great residue of racism in the American soul. And when they begin themselves, in their person, to treat minorities as well as they treat their own, then I'll begin to believe in the possibilities of a color-blind America."

Yet Schlesinger has seen great progress in race relations in his lifetime. "Fifty years ago, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma was published. If you read the account of race relations in that book, a great book, and see the contrast between that and today, it's extraordinary. You learn to appreciate it," he says. "If anyone told me 50 years ago that I would live to see a black man as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, black justices on the Supreme Court, a black governor of Virginia, for God's sake, black mayors of Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, not to speak of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and so on, I would have been incredulous. Yet this has happened, and it's not unusual that the more changes come, the more passionate the need is for further change."

The progress is not enough for Schlesinger. He also understands that it is not enough for those who suffer racial discrimination. Because he believes that affirmative government--the federal, big-government programs--helped to achieve that progress, he deplores the fact that those programs are now threatened. Schlesinger would describe it as tragic if affirmative action had to be around forever. But he thinks it is still needed, because if the country is to make progress on race issues, access to education and jobs is vital.

"My view of affirmative action, basically, is that it was absolutely necessary to break entrenched habits of employment, entrenched patterns in the labor market--you had to do something to change that. But I always assumed it was a transitional device. I never believed that it should be a permanent feature of the labor market. It seems to me that the test of when it stops being vital depends on the attitude toward it of those whom it's designed to help. In other words, when minorities who benefit from it begin to feel that it creates more problems than it does benefits, then it seems to me you've got to begin to phase it out."

Another hot button issue today with Schlesinger is the stripping of federal power by a Congress that wants to return that power to the states. Schlesinger suggests that, before reducing its power, we recall why the country established a strong national authority.

"If the states' rights philosophy had prevailed, we'd still have slavery in this country," he says. "I think it's an illusion to think that the government closer to the people is more responsive to the people. Government closer to the people is more responsive to the larger interests in that locality or state. That's why the role of the national government has been to help those who are oppressed or excluded in their own localities. Most of the progress in making this a more decent country has come through the national government, not through local government. Local government is the government of the local oligarchy."

Schlesinger argues that despite the lapses of the national government, it is self-deluding to believe that power taken from the federal government will end up anywhere but in the hands of corporations. He adds that the only balance to "private and unaccountable" economic power is the power of the national government.

"The free market is not going to rebuild the infrastructure of the country," Schlesinger argues with an "any fool would know that" tone. "It's not going to provide adequate health care. It's not going to protect the environment. It's not going to improve our schools. None of these things are going to be done by the untrammeled free market. And the whole effort to destroy so many of the protections of the consumer and of the worker which is now going on--this dismantling of the structure that Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy and Truman and Johnson erected--is going to make matters worse. So I think there's going to be a recoil against this and I think it'll take place by '96."

That recoil, of course, depends on the American voter agreeing with Schlesinger's view that the Republican efforts in Congress are dangerous because they ignore many of the basic reasons for the problems the country faces. Schlesinger blames the public's anxiety for its general opposition to government, while at the same time supporting the services that government provides.

"I think we're passing through great structural change in this country as fundamental as the industrial revolution," says the historian. "We went from a society based on industry to one based on the microchip, and this is going to bring in its wake all sorts of changes, structural changes, in the patterns of employment. It will probably bring more 'disemployment' than employment, unlike the industrial revolution. And the fear of unemployment, and so on, will become a much more intimate fear for the middle class. The middle class has regarded personal economic insecurity with complacency so long as it was confined to the working class, the blue-collar workers. But now it's affecting them. Downsizing, the popular euphemism, is hitting middle managers--people in their 40s and 50s and so on.

"There's panic in the suburbs these days. And they're mad. The middle class is mad. They were mad at Bush in '92 and beat him. They were mad at Clinton in '94 and humiliated him. And Gingrich was the beneficiary of that. They'll be mad at Gingrich in '96 because there's nothing in the 'Contract on America,' 'Contract for America,' 'Contract with America,' that's going to meet the basic troubles. So I think that the government is a convenient scapegoat, because government up to this point hasn't met these troubles. But the notion that the reduction in government and that the free market, the untrammeled free market, is going to meet these problems is ridiculous."

Schlesinger calls Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress "the wrecking crew." Of the speaker he observes, "He's a historian, I regret to say. Or history teacher--never got tenure. They made a great mistake," Schlesinger muses of the college that could have made Gingrich a career academic. "I think Newt is bound to overreach. He's an intelligent fellow, I guess, and he must know he ought to control himself and not come up with dogmatic pronouncements about everything under the sun, but he can't resist it."

Arthur Schlesinger the political activist played no small part in constructing many of the programs that the Gingrich gang is attacking today. He grew up during the Great Depression. He witnessed the maturing of the nation's labor and civil rights movements. And he spoke out for all of them. So you'll understand his being sensitive to attempts to dismantle affirmative government; he takes it somewhat personally.

"Well, I regret it, obviously, oppose it and condemn it," he admits. "But I've done my share on the barricades on all these matters. What we need is the kind of leadership that will point this out in an effective way."

That kind of leadership needs to come from the person voted into the White House, Schlesinger insists, but he is hard-pressed to come up with someone who would capably fill the role today.

"What's odd is the poverty of talent. Joe Califano [Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to President Johnson] and I were talking about this the other day, and Joe said, 'Cast your mind back to Los Angeles in 1960. The Democrats there had a choice between Jack Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, Scoop Jackson--any one of whom would have been a respectable candidate.' It's hard to think of an alternative to Clinton, except Gore.

"I have been in the past a bit disappointed that Clinton has not more of a disposition to fight for his program," Schlesinger says matter-of-factly. "He has the capacity to do it. He's a very good speaker. He's very articulate and so on. But in recent [months]--as in the nomination of Dr. Foster and his willingness to use the veto threat--he has been showing more of an inclination to stand up and fight."

Schlesinger does not pretend to know better, but like the Tory Democrat he is, he urges the president to act in the nation's interest. Schlesinger has known Clinton for a while, ever since the president, then Arkansas governor, asked him to breakfast during a governors' conference in the early '80s. Schlesinger, a strong Clinton supporter in the 1992 election, thinks the president is loathe to get into fights. That is a bad trait in a leader, Schlesinger believes. "I think presidents, particularly presidents who want to change things, must recognize they're bound to get opposition. As they used to say about Grover Cleveland, 'We love him for the enemies he has made.' Franklin Roosevelt was not only the most loved president in this century, he was the most hated president of this century because he didn't try to please everybody."

It's natural for everyone, especially presidents, to want to be liked, but that just doesn't work if you live in the White House, observes the one-time White House aide.

"Clinton's a very bright man. He's got an impressive technical command of complicated issues. He's got great intellectual curiosity. He's got a natural eloquence and concern. I believe him to be a New Dealer at heart. Other things being equal, that's the kind of thing he would like to do. He would like to use government as a means of enlarging individual opportunity. But he goes into clinches too much when he's fighting. Last time I was in Arkansas someone told me, 'You know, we always used to say about Bill Clinton, it's better to be his enemy than his friend, because he treats his enemy better than he treats his friend.' There is some great desire to be liked."

Schlesinger sees Clinton as not that different from President Kennedy in terms of political philosophy, but sees a great difference in the operational styles of the two chief executives. He's not looking for a job--in fact, he's only been invited twice to the White House--but Schlesinger thinks the Clinton administration is not necessarily filled with the "best and the brightest."

"In Clinton's case, it's very odd. Kennedy used his own generation and older people, but I think Clinton doesn't feel comfortable, perhaps, with older people. Most of the people around him are much younger. It's hard enough for anybody to talk back to a president or say, 'Don't do this,' but it's much harder if you're much younger than the president to do that. So he may not be getting the best advice. Kennedy was a secure fellow. I mean you could talk to him, and he and I were the same age and had known each other for a long time."

Schlesinger's reputation for straight talk, shored up by a quiet intellectual honesty, goes back a long way. He is not the kind of guest you are likely to see on today's bombastic Washington talk show circuit.

"He's a very reflective person, but he also has a wonderful sense of humor [and] a tremendous arsenal of historical facts that are useful in an argument," says Ted Sorenson, who was John Kennedy's special counsel in the White House and is now a lawyer in New York. "We're very close friends. He's one of my favorite people in the entire world."

At the White House, Sorenson recalls, Schlesinger was extremely valuable as a colleague. There was a lot of cooperation among White House staffers because there weren't many of them. Schlesinger was Kennedy's special assistant for Latin America, among a host of other issues.

The Kennedy-Schlesinger ties were established shortly after Schlesinger returned from the war in late 1945. He and his first wife had two children by then; while he was overseas, the family remained in Washington. They had been there since Schlesinger began working for the Office of War Information shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, then for the OSS from 1943 to '45. The family stayed in Washington until 1947, when Schlesinger accepted an offer to teach at Harvard.


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