Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian review: Creator of JFK’s Camelot
Richard Aldous on the myth and reality of a key member of Kennedy’s kitchen cabinet
John F Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger jnr. Photograph: Getty
Schlesinger: the Imperial Historian
Writing from the White House in 1963 on the historian as political adviser, Arthur Schlesinger jnr suggested that “to smell the dust and sweat of battle, is surely to stimulate and amplify the historical imagination”.
Many people have wondered how the 43-year-old Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and award-winning historian, ended up working in the White House of John F Kennedy. The triumph of Richard Aldous’s new book is that it separates the myth from the reality, explaining both the seemingly inexorable rise of Schlesinger and how he contributed so much to the subsequent mythologising of the Kennedy era.
Born in 1917, the same year as Kennedy, Schlesinger was not a self-made man. Named Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger – his mother’s maiden name was Bancroft – he changed his middle name at the age of 15 to Meier so that he could imitate his father, the great Harvard historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger and become Arthur Schlesinger jnr. His father’s connections and influence certainly helped. His entry to Harvard was fast-tracked (he started two years before Kennedy) and his father played a major role in helping him publish his final-year thesis as a book in 1939.
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There followed a prestigious fellowship at Harvard but despite his obvious abilities as a scholar, writer and original thinker, there were some awkward questions asked in 1942 because he hadn’t yet started on his PhD, something that was becoming increasingly necessary in the profession. Again Schlesinger snr came to the rescue, registering his son as his own PhD student and expediting the whole process. As Aldous notes, it “pushed the boundaries of academic propriety or even common sense to the breaking point”. The thesis was submitted later that same year, based on work that “Little Arthur” (as contemporaries sometimes called him) had been doing on US president Andrew Jackson. This later became The Age of Jackson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1946, a remarkable achievement for the then 28-year-old historian, but helped greatly by the fact that his father sat on the advisory committee and only withdrew once it became clear that his son’s book was in the running.
This is not to deny the genius of Schlesinger jnr as an historian, just to note, as Aldous does, that he lived on the inside track, a placement that “served him so well throughout his rise to national prominence” and which so often “gave him a head start in an always competitive race”. The Age of Jackson was a ground-breaking work, described in the New York Times as “an original, brilliant and monumentally massive historical work”, and praised by the great historian Richard Hofstadter for its stylish writing and for making a “major contribution to American historiography”.
Academic fame and a professorship at Harvard followed but Schlesinger was not satisfied, and threw himself into public life, playing a key role in the failed presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. When Kennedy won the nomination in 1960 he soon came on board as a supporter, but played little real role in the campaign except to publish a short book, Kennedy or Nixon: does it make any difference? The book excoriated Nixon, accusing him of having “no sense of history” and of being “a strangely hollow man”.
The election of Kennedy propelled Schlesinger into the centre of American politics and he was invited to join the White House team. Again Aldous is superb at separating the reality from the romance. Schlesinger was in part appointed because he represented a bridge to the Stevenson camp and the liberal wing of the Democratic party who feared Kennedy was too conservative. Because he had not backed Kennedy from the beginning (he had even switched sides in 1956 when Kennedy tried to get the vice-presidential slot) he was never one of the trusted core of advisers. Unsure of what his role would be, he was charmed by Kennedy who told him that he wasn’t certain what he would be doing as president either, “but I am sure there will be enough at the White House to keep us both busy”.
His friend, the economist JK Galbraith, had a much clearer view of what was necessary. Galbraith believed that you should get your power, “not from the man above, but from the job below. One should not be one of the people the president wants to see but one that he must see”.
Bay of Pigs
At times, Schlesinger was someone the president both wanted to see and needed to see. During the lead-up to the disastrous Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Castro, Schlesinger was almost a lone voice arguing against it. In his published journals, Schlesinger wrote that afterwards Kennedy noted “in one of those typical flashes of high sardonic humour” that “Arthur wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration, only he better not publish that memorandum while I’m still alive!”. There is not much of the high, sardonic humour in Aldous’s retelling of the story, with the line being said when Kennedy rounded on his advisers. It seems the president even had a title for Schlesinger’s book: “Kennedy: the Only Year”.
At other times, Schlesinger could be left out in the cold, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when he was not invited to any of the meetings of ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council). Indeed he only learned of their existence, and the crisis itself, very late on. It seems his closeness to the media, and his own fondness for loose talk, may have excluded him.
The assassination of Kennedy changed everything, and Schlesinger immediately began working on memorialising the slain president in print. A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House, published in 1965 was more than 1,000 pages, and it won him his second Pulitzer Prize. As others have noted it helped create the framework for understanding the Kennedys that is still in place today. There followed a similar, but less successful attempt to memorialise Robert Kennedy after his assassination. However, in terms of active political engagement, Schlesinger’s career was over. There was still some great history to write, including The Imperial Presidency, a book which provided a rebuke to the foreign policies of presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Nixon. However, some awkwardness occurred in later years when Nixon moved in next door to him in New York.
Following the collapse of his first marriage, in 1971 Schlesinger married Alexandra Emmet, a descendent of the great Irish patriot family, and named their child Robert Emmet Kennedy Schlesinger. Aldous ends this magisterial study with a piece of wisdom from Schlesinger spoken in 2007, shortly before his death: “History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience.”
Patrick Geoghegan is a professor in history at Trinity College Dublin and is currently a special adviser to the Taoiseach.