Arthur Schlesinger, Historian of Power, Dies at 89
March 1, 2007
Arthur Schlesinger, Historian of Power, Dies at 89
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian whose more than 20 books
shaped discussions for two generations about America's past and who
himself was a provocative, unabashedly liberal partisan, most notably
in serving in the Kennedy White House, died last night in Manhattan.
He was 89.
The cause was a heart attack, said Mr. Schlesinger's son Stephen. He
died at New York Downtown Hospital after being stricken in a restaurant.
Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Mr.
Schlesinger exhaustively examined the administrations of two prominent
presidents, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, against a
vast background of regional and economic rivalries. He strongly argued
that strong individuals like Jackson and Roosevelt could bend history.
The notes he took for President John F. Kennedy to use in writing his
own history, became, after the president's assassination, grist for
Mr. Schlesinger's own "A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White
House," winner of both the Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966.
His 1978 book on the president's brother, "Robert Kennedy and His
Times," lauded the subject as the most politically creative man of his
time but acknowledged that Robert had played a larger role in trying
to overthrow President Fidel Castro of Cuba than the author had
acknowledged in "A Thousand Days."
Mr. Schlesinger worked on both brothers' presidential campaigns, and
some critics suggested he had trouble separating history from
sentiment. Gore Vidal called "A Thousand Days" a political novel, and
many noted that the book ignored the president's sexual wanderings.
Others were unhappy he told so much, particularly taking the unusual
step of asserting that the president was unhappy with his secretary of
state, Dean Rusk.
Mr. Schlesinger saw life as a walk through history. He wrote that he
could not stroll down Fifth Avenue without wondering how the street
and the people on it would have looked a hundred years ago.
"He is willing to argue that the search for an understanding of the
past is not simply an aesthetic exercise but a path to the
understanding of our own time," Alan Brinkley, the historian, wrote.
Mr. Schlesinger wore a trademark dotted bowtie, showed an acid wit and
had a magnificent bounce to his step. Between marathons of writing as
much as 5,000 words a day, he was a fixture at Georgetown salons when
Washington was clubbier and more elitist, a lifelong aficionado of
perfectly-blended martinis and a man about New York, whether at Truman
Capote's famous parties or escorting Jacqueline Kennedy to the movies.
In the McCarthy era and beyond, he was a leader of anti-Communist
liberals and a fierce partisan who called for the impeachment of
Richard M. Nixon, which never happened, and just as passionately
denounced that of President Bill Clinton, when it did.
In his last book, "War and the American Presidency," published in
2004, Mr. Schlesinger challenged the foundations of the foreign policy
of President Bush, calling the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath "a
ghastly mess." He said the president's curbs on civil liberties would
have the same result as similar actions throughout American history.
"We hate ourselves in the morning," he wrote.
However liberal, he was not a slave to what came to be called
political correctness. He spiritedly defended the old-fashioned
American melting pot against proponents of multiculturalism, the idea
that ethnicities should retain separate identities and even celebrate
them. He elicited tides of criticism by comparing Afrocentrism to the
Ku Klux Klan.
History and its telling, quite literally, ran in Mr. Schlesinger's
blood. One of his reputed ancestors was George Bancroft, who over 40
years starting in 1834 wrote the monumental 12-volume "History of the
United States from the Discovery of the Continent." His father, Arthur
M. Schlesinger, was an immensely influential historian who led the way
in making social history a genuine discipline.
The son changed his middle name from Bancroft to Meier, his father's
middle name, in his early teens, and began calling himself junior. He
would later adopt and develop many of his father's ideas about
history, including the theory that history moves in cycles from
liberal to conservative periods. His father gave him the idea for his
Harvard honors thesis.
But the younger Mr. Schlesinger, for all the tradition he embodied,
had a refreshing streak of informality. While working in the Kennedy
White House, he found time to review movies for Show magazine. He also
admitted his mistakes. One, he said, was neglecting to mention
President Jackson's brutal treatment of the Indians in his Pulitzer
Prize-winning "Age of Jackson." It was published when he was 27, and
is still standard reading.
The book rejected earlier interpretations linking the rise of
Jacksonian democracy with westward expansion. Instead, it gave greater
importance to a coalition of intellectuals and workers in the
Northeast who were determined to check the growing power of business.
The book sold more than 90,000 copies in its first year, and won the
1946 Pulitzer Prize for history.
His multivolume history of the New Deal, "The Age of Roosevelt," began
in 1957 with "The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933," continued in
1959 with "The Coming of the New Deal" and culminated in 1960 with
"The Politics of Upheaval." The first volume won two prestigious
awards for history-writing, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society
of American Historians and the Frederic Bancroft Prize from Columbia
University. The book was praised for capturing the interplay between
ideas and action, stressing tensions similar to those Mr. Schlesinger
had described in the Jackson era.
"This book clearly launches one of the important historical
enterprises of our time," the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in The
Mr. Schlesinger never stopped seeming like the brightest student in
class, "the eternal Quiz Kid," in Time magazine's phrase. He had no
advanced degrees but his scholarly output, not to mention reams of
articles for popular publications like TV Guide and Ladies' Home
Journal, dwarfed those who did. Even as a child he felt a duty to
manage conversations, not to say monopolize them.
An article in The New York Times magazine in 1965 told of his mother
asking him to be quiet so she could make her point.
"Mother, how can I be quiet if you insist upon making statements that
are not factually accurate," the boy, then 11 or 12, replied.
Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15,
1917, the elder of the two sons of Arthur Meier Schlesinger and the
former Elizabeth Bancroft. The younger Mr. Schlesinger wrote
approvingly that Bancroft the historian, his mother's ancestor, was a
presidential ghostwriter and bon vivant in addition to being called
the father of American history.
It was his father whom "young Arthur," as he was known, idolized. His
argument that urban labor was behind much of the upheaval in Jackson's
time was taken up and brilliantly expanded by his son.
The younger Schlesinger in the first volume of his memoirs, "A Life in
the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950" (2000), called
his childhood "sunny." He spent his earliest years in Iowa City, where
his father was on the faculty of the University of Iowa. The family
moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1924, when his father was appointed to
the Harvard faculty. Arthur Sr. later became chairman of the Harvard
Young Arthur first attended public schools in Cambridge, but his
parents lost faith in public education in his sophomore year after a
civics teacher informed Arthur's class that inhabitants of Albania
were called Albinos and had white hair and pink eyes. He was shipped
to the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
He graduated at 15, but the family felt he was too young to go to
Harvard. So, while his father was on sabbatical, the whole family took
a long trip around the world. Mr. Schlesinger then went on to Harvard
and graduated summa cum laude in 1938.
From boyhood he socialized with his father's intellectually powerful
friends, from the humorist James Thurber to the novelist John Dos
Passos. When he was 14, he met H. L. Mencken, and later corresponded
with him. At Harvard, he knew such leading intellectual lights as the
historian Samuel Eliot Morison.
Mr. Schlesinger later became part of the powerful circle surrounding
the journalist Joseph Alsop, a group that included Philip Graham,
publisher of The Washington Post, W. Averill Harriman, former governor
of New York, and the lawyer Clark Clifford. Mr. Schlesinger met Mr.
Kennedy, then a senator, at an Alsop soiree. His impression: "Kennedy
seemed very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the
Mr. Schlesinger, partly through his appreciation of history, fully
realized his good fortune. "I have lived through interesting times and
had the luck of knowing some interesting people," he wrote.
A huge part of his luck was his father, who guided much of his early
research, and even suggested the topic for his senior honors: Orestes
A. Brownson, a 19th-century journalist, novelist and theologian. It
was published by Little, Brown in 1938 as "Orestes A. Brownson: A
Pilgrim's Progress." Henry Steele Commager in The New York Times Book
Review, said the book introduced "a new and distinguished talent in
the field of historical portraiture."
Mr. Schlesinger spent a year at Peterhouse College of Cambridge
University on a fellowship and returned to Harvard, where he had been
selected to be one of the first crop of junior fellows. Their research
was supported for three years, but they were not allowed to pursue
Ph.D.'s, a requirement intended to keep them off the standard academic
While a fellow, Mr. Schlesinger married Marian Cannon, whom he had met
during his junior year at Harvard. Her sister was married to John King
Fairbank, the eminent sinologist. The Schlesingers had twins, Stephen
and Katharine, and two more children, Christina and Andrew. Katharine
died in 2004. The Schlesingers were divorced in 1970.
He married Alexandra Emmet the next year. They had a boy, Robert,
named for Robert F. Kennedy. She had a son from a previous marriage,
Peter Allan. Mr. Schlesinger is survived by all three, in addition to
his former wife and their three surviving.
As a fellow, Mr. Schlesinger managed to pound out 4,000 to 5,000 words
a day on the Jackson work as his year-old twins frolicked around his
desk. His work on the book was interrupted by World War II. Bad
eyesight precluded his serving in the military, so he got a job as a
writer for the Office of War Information. One assignment was writing a
message from President Roosevelt to the Daughters of the American
Revolution. Mr. Schlesinger doubted the president saw such masterpieces.
He next served in the Office of Strategic Planning, forerunner of the
Central Intelligence Agency, in Washington, London and Paris.
Immediately after the war, Mr. Schlesinger went to Washington as a
freelance journalist for Fortune and other magazines. After 15 months,
in 1946, he accepted an associate professorship at Harvard. He said he
was so nervous teaching that he vomited before each class; eventually
his presentation became so deft that his History 169 course was the
department's most popular offering.
He began to carve out a political identity, one committed to the
social goals of the New Deal and staunchly anti-Communist. In 1947, he
was a founder of the Americans for Democratic Action, the best-known
liberal pressure group.
In 1949, Mr. Schlesinger solidified his position as the spokesman for
postwar liberalism with his book "The Vital Center: The Politics of
Freedom." Inspired by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he
argued that pragmatic, reform-minded liberalism, limited in scope, was
the best that man could hope for politically.
"Problems will always torment us," he wrote, "because all important
problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes
from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain
hope of their solution."
Starting with writing speeches for Adlai Stevenson in both his
presidential campaigns, Mr. Schlesinger was a player in big-time
Democratic politics. Even though Senator Barry Goldwater tried to have
him fired from the Kennedy White House because of his liberal bias,
one of Mr. Goldwater's colleagues paid Mr. Schlesinger something of a
compliment. As quoted anonymously in "The Making of the President,
1964" by Theodore H. White, the Goldwater associate said: "At least
you got to say this for a liberal s.o.b. like Schlesinger when his
candidates go into action, he's there writing speeches for them."
And books. One of his major contributions to the Kennedy campaign was
a book, "Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?" Under Nixon,
the book concluded, the country would "sink into mediocrity and cant
and payola and boredom." Kennedy meant rising to "the splendor of our
On Jan. 9, 1961, a gray, chilly, afternoon, President-elect Kennedy
dropped by Mr. Schlesinger's house on Irving Street in Cambridge. He
asked the professor to be a special assistant in the White House. Mr.
Schlesinger answered, "If you think I can help, I would like to come."
In "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye," (1970) Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David
F. Powers suggest that the new president saw some political risk in
hiring such an unabashed liberal. He decided to keep the appointment
quiet until another liberal, Chester Bowles, was confirmed as under
secretary of state.
The authors, both Kennedy aides, said they asked Mr. Kennedy if he
took Mr. Schlesinger on to write the official history of the
administration. Mr. Kennedy said he would write it himself.
"But Arthur will probably write his own," the president said, "and it
will be better for us if he's in the White House, seeing what goes on,
instead of reading about it in The New York Times and Time magazine."
Time later described Mr. Schlesinger's role in the Kennedy
administration as a bridge to the intelligentsia as well as to the
Adlai Stevenson-Eleanor Roosevelt wing of the Democratic Party. If the
president wanted to meet the intellectual Isaiah Berlin or the
composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Mr. Schlesinger arranged it. The
president was said to enjoy Mr. Schlesinger's gossip during weekly
lunches, although he rarely attended the brainy seminars Robert
Kennedy asked Mr. Schlesinger to organize.
Mr. Schlesinger distinguished himself early in the administration by
being one of the few in the White House to question the invasion of
Cuba planned by the Eisenhower administration. But he then became a
loyal soldier, telling reporters a misleading story that the Cuban
exiles landing at the Bay of Pigs were no greater than 400 when in
fact they numbered 1,400.
In a discussion of that ill-fated action afterward, McGeorge Bundy,
the national security adviser, reminded the president that Mr.
Schlesinger had written a memo opposing the invasion. "That will look
pretty good when he gets around to writing his book about my
administration," Mr. Kennedy said. "Only he better not publish that
memorandum while I'm still alive."
After President Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson
kept Mr. Schlesinger on but gave him virtually nothing to do. He
resigned in January 1964. Mr. Schlesinger soon wrote an article saying
that John Kennedy had not really wanted Mr. Johnson as his
vice-presidential candidate, but had picked him for political reasons.
Mr. Schlesinger, who resigned from Harvard when his leave of absence
expired in 1962, worked on his Kennedy book and for the first few
months of 1966 was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton,
N.J. He then joined the faculty of the City University of New York as
Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities.
He settled in Manhattan, where he remained until his death. His
visibility was high from the society pages to the column he wrote
for the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal to television
appearances. He continued to protect the Kennedy image, despite steady
disclosures that smudged it. In 1996, he angered conservatives by
selecting historians for a poll that found Presidents Kennedy and
Johnson had been "high average" presidents and President Ronald Reagan
His writing was ceaseless, including the book and articles criticizing
the Iraq war. In "The Imperial Presidency" (1973), he argued that
President Richard M. Nixon had so magnified the powers of the
president that he must be impeached. In a review, Jeane Kirkpatrick,
the former ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan, retorted
that Mr. Schlesinger had applied different standards to Democratic
In 1978, Mr. Schlesinger scored a literary and commercial triumph with
"Robert Kennedy and His Times." In The New York Times Book Review,
Garry Wills, who had once called Mr. Schlesinger "a Kennedy courtier,"
rated the work "learned and thorough." It won a National Book Award.
In the book, Mr. Schlesinger compared the brothers: "John Kennedy was
a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic, Robert Kennedy, a
romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist."
Mr. Schlesinger had hoped that Robert would ignite a new spirit of
liberalism but grew disappointed when Jimmy Carter rose to lead the
party in 1976. He considered Mr. Carter woefully conservative and did
not vote for him in either of his campaigns. He worked for Senator
Edward M. Kennedy in his brief presidential campaign in 1980.
In 1991, Mr. Schlesinger provoked a backlash with "The Disuniting of
America," an attack on the emergent "multicultural society" in which
he said Afrocentrists claimed superiority and demanded that their
separate identity be honored by schools and other institutions.
The novelist Ishmael Reed denounced Mr. Schlesinger as a "follower of
David Duke," the former Ku Klux Klan leader. The Harvard professor
Henry Louis Gates Jr. caricatured Mr. Schlesinger's arguments as a
demand for "cultural white-face."
Mr. Schlesinger was nonplussed. He frequently described himself as an
unreconstructed New Dealer whose basic thinking had changed little in
"What the hell," he answered when questioned by The Washington Post
about his attack on multiculturalism. "You have to call them as you
see them. This too shall pass."
Mr. Schlesinger continued to write articles, sign petitions and in
2006 received an award from the National Portrait Gallery for his
presidential service. His failing health prevented him from attending
the funeral of his good friend John Kenneth Galbraith that May. Mr.
Schlesinger's son Stephen read some words he had written about Mr.
Galbraith: "Underneath his joy in combat, he was a do-gooder in the
dark of night."