On Political Books

January/ February 2014 Letters from Camelot

Even in his private correspondence, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was an unapologetic Kennedy partisan.

By Michael O'Donnell

As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s and ’80s, Schlesinger focused on his work as a historian, writing a series of books on Nixon’s “imperial presidency,” the cyclical nature of American politics, and the dangers of multiculturalism. He despaired of public developments, describing Gerald Ford as “a man of unchallenged mediocrity” and Jimmy Carter as “humorless, ungenerous, cold-eyed, crafty, rigid, sanctimonious, and possibly vindictive.” Carter’s moralism and religiosity disgusted Schlesinger, and in 1976, for the only time in his life, he did not cast a vote for president. In 1980 he badly misjudged Ronald Reagan as an accommodating lightweight. Handsomely, he admitted his mistake months into Reagan’s presidency.

A running theme in the collection is Schlesinger’s occasionally naive belief that personal relationships can transcend political disagreement. A person who holds this credo must occasionally temper his views, or express them with diplomacy rather than force. Yet Schlesinger had to have his say, and as a consequence many friendships end in these pages. One notable clash begins with a wounded letter from Henry Kissinger, who protests a newspaper article in which Schlesinger trashed him for claiming to have honor. Schlesinger responds by upbraiding Kissinger for placing the words “honor” and “Nixon” in the same sentence—but nevertheless expresses hope for renewed relations. In another set of awkward exchanges, with William F. Buckley Jr., Schlesinger more or less proves the limits of turning off politics at the stroke of cocktail hour. When Buckley asks Schlesinger to blurb one of his novels, Schlesinger clumsily refuses.

His proud association with the Kennedy family sigil ironically created his chief limitation as an actor in the century’s great events. Schlesinger was brilliant and perceptive and made mighty contributions to academic history, but he will be remembered foremost as Kennedy’s man. Whether Kennedy was right or wrong about an issue, you will find Schlesinger fiercely guarding the truncated potential of JFK’s administration and rhapsodizing the enduring dignity of his family. A servant cannot have two masters. But Schlesinger served his well.

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Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


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