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The Guardian of Liberalism

America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
| By Alejandro Benes | From 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."

Yet Schlesinger has seen great progress in race relations in his lifetime. "Fifty years ago, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma was published. If you read the account of race relations in that book, a great book, and see the contrast between that and today, it's extraordinary. You learn to appreciate it," he says. "If anyone told me 50 years ago that I would live to see a black man as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, black justices on the Supreme Court, a black governor of Virginia, for God's sake, black mayors of Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, not to speak of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and so on, I would have been incredulous. Yet this has happened, and it's not unusual that the more changes come, the more passionate the need is for further change."

The progress is not enough for Schlesinger. He also understands that it is not enough for those who suffer racial discrimination. Because he believes that affirmative government--the federal, big-government programs--helped to achieve that progress, he deplores the fact that those programs are now threatened. Schlesinger would describe it as tragic if affirmative action had to be around forever. But he thinks it is still needed, because if the country is to make progress on race issues, access to education and jobs is vital.

"My view of affirmative action, basically, is that it was absolutely necessary to break entrenched habits of employment, entrenched patterns in the labor market--you had to do something to change that. But I always assumed it was a transitional device. I never believed that it should be a permanent feature of the labor market. It seems to me that the test of when it stops being vital depends on the attitude toward it of those whom it's designed to help. In other words, when minorities who benefit from it begin to feel that it creates more problems than it does benefits, then it seems to me you've got to begin to phase it out."

Another hot button issue today with Schlesinger is the stripping of federal power by a Congress that wants to return that power to the states. Schlesinger suggests that, before reducing its power, we recall why the country established a strong national authority.

"If the states' rights philosophy had prevailed, we'd still have slavery in this country," he says. "I think it's an illusion to think that the government closer to the people is more responsive to the people. Government closer to the people is more responsive to the larger interests in that locality or state. That's why the role of the national government has been to help those who are oppressed or excluded in their own localities. Most of the progress in making this a more decent country has come through the national government, not through local government. Local government is the government of the local oligarchy."

Schlesinger argues that despite the lapses of the national government, it is self-deluding to believe that power taken from the federal government will end up anywhere but in the hands of corporations. He adds that the only balance to "private and unaccountable" economic power is the power of the national government.

"The free market is not going to rebuild the infrastructure of the country," Schlesinger argues with an "any fool would know that" tone. "It's not going to provide adequate health care. It's not going to protect the environment. It's not going to improve our schools. None of these things are going to be done by the untrammeled free market. And the whole effort to destroy so many of the protections of the consumer and of the worker which is now going on--this dismantling of the structure that Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy and Truman and Johnson erected--is going to make matters worse. So I think there's going to be a recoil against this and I think it'll take place by '96."

That recoil, of course, depends on the American voter agreeing with Schlesinger's view that the Republican efforts in Congress are dangerous because they ignore many of the basic reasons for the problems the country faces. Schlesinger blames the public's anxiety for its general opposition to government, while at the same time supporting the services that government provides.

"I think we're passing through great structural change in this country as fundamental as the industrial revolution," says the historian. "We went from a society based on industry to one based on the microchip, and this is going to bring in its wake all sorts of changes, structural changes, in the patterns of employment. It will probably bring more 'disemployment' than employment, unlike the industrial revolution. And the fear of unemployment, and so on, will become a much more intimate fear for the middle class. The middle class has regarded personal economic insecurity with complacency so long as it was confined to the working class, the blue-collar workers. But now it's affecting them. Downsizing, the popular euphemism, is hitting middle managers--people in their 40s and 50s and so on.

"There's panic in the suburbs these days. And they're mad. The middle class is mad. They were mad at Bush in '92 and beat him. They were mad at Clinton in '94 and humiliated him. And Gingrich was the beneficiary of that. They'll be mad at Gingrich in '96 because there's nothing in the 'Contract on America,' 'Contract for America,' 'Contract with America,' that's going to meet the basic troubles. So I think that the government is a convenient scapegoat, because government up to this point hasn't met these troubles. But the notion that the reduction in government and that the free market, the untrammeled free market, is going to meet these problems is ridiculous."

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."

"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."

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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