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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

(continued from page 4)

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."

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