The Guardian of Liberalism

America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

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Based on his experiences with the young JFK, Schlesinger disputes the image of Kennedy as a less-than-serious legislator. "He was certainly a serious senator. He wasn't part of the club. The issues interested him. He was very much interested in labor. That's where his great friendship with Walter Reuther [president of the United Auto Workers] was formed and the great enmity with [Teamsters boss Jimmy] Hoffa, because the Rackets Committee was investigating the invasion of the labor movements by organized crime.
"He was a very attractive, bright fellow," Schlesinger remembers, brightening a bit as he talks about JFK. "What struck me about him was his independence of mind. He had a generally independent mind, great intellectual curiosity, great retentiveness, exploring issues on his own. He disagreed with his father on many things. His father was a strong isolationist in the 1940s, as he had been in the 1930s, and Kennedy disagreed with that. His father was against the Marshall Plan, against the Truman Doctrine, against the Korean War. Kennedy supported all of those. He was at the same time independent of conventional liberalism in that period, and he was trying to work out his own positions. It was always fun to see him."
Despite their friendship, it was not JFK's idea to have Schlesinger serve in the White House. That was Robert Kennedy's doing. Schlesinger seems to marvel at the notion that Bobby Kennedy would have done such a thing. "I started off badly with Bobby." He had angered the younger Kennedy in the early 1950s with their public exchange of letters in The New York Times debating the merits of the Yalta agreement. Although Jack Kennedy remained above his brother's tiff with Schlesinger, it wasn't until the pair was accidentally thrust together on a long campaign bus ride in 1956 that they resolved their differences.
What had begun badly worked out well in the ensuing years. "I remember in 1960, when Ken Galbraith and I came out for Kennedy, and The Boston Globe called my wife and she said, no, she was for Stevenson. Shortly afterwards I got a letter from Robert Kennedy about something and a scrawled postscript said, 'Can't you control your wife? Or are you like me?' " Schlesinger laughs as he remembers. "He had a very engaging sense of humor; it was he who really recruited me for Kennedy's White House staff."
In January 1961, John Kennedy went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a meeting with Harvard's board of overseers. The president-elect set up a sort of transition headquarters in Schlesinger's house and during the day interviewed people whom he was thinking of taking to Washington. During this visit, Schlesinger recalls that JFK turned to him and said, "'Bobby tells me you're going to come down and work in the White House.' And I said, 'Yes. I'm thoroughly looking forward to that. Better chance for a historian, and so on.' Though I said I didn't have a clear idea of what I would be doing as a special assistant to the president. To which he replied, 'Well, I have no clear idea what I'll be doing as president, but I'm sure there'll be enough to keep us both busy.' The fun of working with the Kennedys was the humor, the light touch."
For Schlesinger, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy are two of the worst days in American history. Yet he has never given up hope for the United States. To the contrary, he has fought, in the manner he believes best, for the idea of an American identity. In his most recent book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger debates against the "cult of ethnicity," which he sees fragmenting society, and in favor of the "American," whom he labels "a new race of men. Still the best answer--still the best hope."
Schlesinger says that his White House days were unquestionably the biggest professional challenge he has ever faced. Those days were exhilarating, he recalls. Schlesinger would often be in Kennedy's office for a meeting, but then the president would engage Schlesinger in whatever issues were foremost on his mind. Sometimes Kennedy would simply hand Schlesinger a folder about an issue that he had nothing to do with, and he would have to go find out which aide was in charge of that issue. Kennedy was not particularly "administratively disciplined," Schlesinger says, chuckling a bit, but things ran reasonably well.
"In Kennedy's day, access to the president on the part of special assistants was easy. At the end of the day, if he left the door between his office and Mrs. Lincoln's [Kennedy's secretary] office open, that meant that you could stick your head in and raise something or sometimes you could just come in and chat. Now, special assistants have to make appointments with presidents and sometimes they won't be able to see them for a week or two weeks. It's ridiculous."
Pierre Salinger, JFK's press secretary, now with the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller in Washington, D.C., says that Schlesinger was so valuable to Kennedy that the two would meet every day. He remembers it was Schlesinger who arranged for the French journalist Jean Daniel, then editor-in-chief of L'Observateur, to meet with Kennedy in November 1963, just before Daniel went on to Havana to interview Fidel Castro.
"It was about five days before the assassination," Salinger recalls. "That journalist spent about a half hour to 45 minutes with the president. The president discovered [Daniel] was heading for Cuba after he left Washington, and it was that guy that the president said to, 'Give a message to Castro for me that I'm ready to start negotiations to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.' And that journalist was in Castro's office when the phone rang and they discovered that Kennedy had been assassinated."
In A Thousand Days, Schlesinger writes: "Castro was with Jean Daniel when the report came; he said, 'Es una mala noticia' ('This is bad news.') In a few moments, with the final word, he stood and said, 'Everything is changed.... I'll tell you one thing: At least Kennedy was an enemy to whom we had become accustomed.' "
Schlesinger recalls the times, before relations had soured completely with Cuba, when some of Kennedy's aides would gather in the Oval Office and smoke Cuban cigars with the president. Schlesinger says that Salinger was usually the one who got them started.
"Pierre was a much more compulsive cigar smoker. [Kennedy] liked a cigar in a proper setting. He liked a cigar after dinner. Sometimes he would smoke a cigar at the end of the afternoon, but he wasn't a compulsive smoker. Unfortunately, just as my taste began to develop for Havana cigars, we imposed the embargo [on Cuba]." Schlesinger believes the embargo was useful then, but that with the end of the Cold War and with Cuba no longer aiding guerrilla groups in Latin America, the policy is now useless.
Schlesinger learned about cigars by hanging out with his father. "My father was a cigar smoker. I originally was a cigarette smoker, and then early on perhaps some doctor said something to me, and I gave them up. And when I gave them up I discovered that the hangovers I was getting were probably more due to cigarette smoking than to drinking. I'd wake up with bad headaches and so on. When I stopped smoking [cigarettes] I didn't get them. I smoked pipes for awhile, but in the '56 campaign I began to feel that it was affecting my throat, so I gave up pipe smoking and then began cigars. I began smoking this forgotten cigar, the Bock Panatela, and gradually my taste for cigars improved.
"Alfred Knopf, the publisher, was a great cigar aficionado, and he would come to Cambridge or Boston once or twice a year and invite my father and me out for dinner. He'd give us a splendid dinner and produce these marvelous cigars. So I think it was Knopf who opened my eyes to the ultimate fragrance and bouquet of the great cigars."
Knopf continued to provide Schlesinger with great cigar moments, even after the historian moved from Massachusetts. "One cigar story I cherish: When I came to live in New York, Alfred Knopf continued to invite me to dinner occasionally. Once we had dinner with [legendary pianist] Arthur Rubinstein, and at the end of the dinner the great Knopf collection of cigars was produced. We were all puffing away, and I noticed that Rubinstein had not removed the band from his cigar, which I always had been taught to do before you start smoking. I said to him, 'Mr. Rubinstein, I know you're a great connoisseur of cigars, but I'm struck by the fact that you have not removed the band from your cigar. Is that your practice?' Or something like that. To which he replied, 'Every time that you drink a glass of wine, do you soak the label off the bottle?' "
Schlesinger enjoys telling the story so much that he laughs out loud and adds, "So thereafter, I've never bothered to remove the band from the cigar."
Schlesinger is not above accepting a Dominican import or a Miami-made La Gloria Cubana. He seems genuinely interested in trying different cigars but relishes nothing more than telling you about his adventures with Habanos. He is as serious about cigars as he is about the preservation of the nation's social safety net, but he seems to enjoy himself much more talking about the former.
"The whole moral balance of power has swung against cigar smokers," he declares. "I can remember back in the 1950s, I was having lunch with a beautiful woman in La Côte Basque, and at the end of the excellent lunch I lit a cigar and a man in the banquette next [to us] objected to the cigar. I was filled with righteous indignation. I pointed out this was a fine Havana cigar and he should be grateful being within smelling range. We had a rather spirited, acrimonious discussion. Of course, now I wouldn't dream of lighting a cigar anywhere, except in my own study, without full clearance of everyone in sight."
His wife, Alexandra Emmet, doesn't mind the cigars, as long as he does not smoke them in the bedroom. Their son Rob, named for Robert Kennedy and Irish nationalist Robert Emmet (a distant relative of Alexandra's), is carrying on the cigar tradition and reveals that when he was younger, he would sneak into his father's closet, reach up to the top shelf and remove one cigar at a time from its box. This is news to Rob's parents, who thoroughly enjoy the additional news that Rob would smoke a cigar to get past his writer's block. Writer's block in high school?
In what he says is the only piece he has ever written about cigars, Schlesinger wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 1986 that "I applaud every move to expel smoking from public places. I hope that my wife will stop smoking and my children never start." Later he adds, "I welcome the march of sanity and progress. And yet, and yet.... As a historian, I am bound to feel that an era is coming to an end. Did I write 'as a historian'? Let me confess: as a smoker of cigars." He closes the piece by writing, "There is everything to be said for progress, but sometimes progress does indeed breed melancholy."
The melancholy has faded as cigars have made a comeback, a resurgence which Schlesinger attributes less to the projection of a lifestyle than to the simple pleasure of the smoke. "I remember once when we were in the Netherlands and [former West German chancellor] Helmut Schmidt and his wife were present. And Frau Schmidt was smoking cigarettes, chain-smoking. And the question came up and she said she'd given up smoking, but the reason she says she took it up again was she couldn't stand all those people trying to pass laws to prevent it. That was her pretext. You know, it's like prohibition. There's a kind of incentive to try and beat the law when it comes down to a matter of private habits. That may be a factor in it, but I think one shouldn't underestimate the inherent enjoyment."
Schlesinger says that he and his wife still go out too many nights, but he looks for absolution to his friend Norman Mailer, who told him that if you spend all day writing, it is all right to party. The Manhattan nightlife takes its toll, but there are other distractions in the city for a man with so many experiences.
"One of the great illusions of life is that age will bring simplification. All age does is to aggregate your obligations," he says. "You know, people arrive who've been nice to you in Moscow or Rome or someplace; living in New York is particularly vulnerable since everyone comes through New York. So there are these interruptions and you can't reject things like that," he says.
Despite his protests about not being productive enough, he grins and admits that life has been good. "Yes, I've had a very good time, but I still should've done more. However, it's not over yet."
Good thing, too. With 1995 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's death and the first year of the most serious assault on FDR's legacy, Schlesinger plans to get back to chronicling the era of Franklin Roosevelt. "I hope before I move on to the great library in the sky, to complete The Age of Roosevelt, of which [the first] three volumes came out [more than] 30 years ago. When I finish this memoir, that's going to be my next order of business."
Schlesinger is compelled to write his own history, he said, because "I thought I'd better while I can still remember things. I've discovered that it's quite a lot of fun. Memory is something which grows on itself. When you begin to think about the past, your memory is jogged and new memories appear."
And lost time can be found.
Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.
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