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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."

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