The Guardian of Liberalism
America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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"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.
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."
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