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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 2)

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."

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