rthur Schlesinger Jr. was the best-known American historian of the 20th century. The irony is that he is remembered more for his forays into politics than his writings, which included two Pulitzer Prize–winning books. He was, and remains, best known for his own Thousand Days, to steal a phrase, as a White House aide in John F. Kennedy’s wannabe Camelot.
Schlesinger and Kennedy shared one key commonality, as Richard Aldous’s readable new biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian, details. Everyone knows Kennedy’s father, the business magnate Joseph Kennedy, financed his political career. Kennedy once jokingly described a telegram from his dad that read, “Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” Aldous adds an additional delicious detail: Kennedy’s 1956 book Profiles in Courage (almost certainly written by Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen) hit the bestseller list because his father bought boxes and boxes of the book to boost sales. Most of them, Aldous reports, “were found years afterwards piled up in the basement at the family’s compound in Hyannisport.”
Parental assistance was a constant in Schlesinger’s rise to the top of his profession as well. His first book, on Orestes Brownson, was on a topic suggested by his historian father and published with his father’s assistance. Arthur Sr. also helped his son secure his first Pulitzer Prize, for The Age of Jackson, in 1945; “winning the prize,” Aldous writes, “was another instance for Arthur Jr. living on the inside track.”
Schlesinger was not without significant talent and an ability to make history seem relevant to the concerns of the current day. This often led to somewhat blinkered judgments, such as suggesting that Andrew Jackson was some kind of 19th-century incarnation of an FDR Democrat, but it also made American history seem very much a part of the present. Aldous writes that Schlesinger had “the ability to make writing as natural as speaking.” And he wrote fast. He could pound out 4,000 to 5,000 words a day. This skill would come in handy writing speeches for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and in his years in the Kennedy White House, where he served as a kind of court intellectual.
Fast writing also came into play after his time in the White House, when he and Sorensen were in a race to produce the first insider book on the late President Kennedy. Sorensen won the publication battle, but Schlesinger won the long-term war, securing his second Pulitzer, for A Thousand Days. The battle had a cost. The two men had been friendly rivals in the Kennedy White House; Schlesinger was more distinguished but Sorensen was personally closer to JFK. As a new front opened up to become the official court chronicler, Sorensen later admitted, “Our friendship was temporarily strained.”
Even his admirers were forced to acknowledge that his tomes on JFK and Robert Kennedy were hagiographic almost to the point of self-parody. He had more books in him after this period, including The Imperial Presidency and The Disuniting of America, but no more scholarly works. When Schlesinger started his post-Harvard, post–White House position at the City University of New York, he was only 49 years old. Thus, his political involvements proved to have a larger and deeper cost: They finished him as a historian.
Despite having had great fun in his final decades—he was socially prominent in New York, an A-list party guest with an entertaining second wife—he had some regrets about the way things turned out. “I feel that I should have spent much more time writing history,” he told the New York Times in 2000, “and less writing op-ed pieces or speeches for candidates.”
In the end, Schlesinger was a reliable liberal who did not fall prey to the worst tendencies of his partisan comrades. He was opposed to multiculturalism, and he was strongly anti-Communist throughout his career. He was ever a student and champion of what would now be dismissed as “white male history.” Does this mean that Schlesinger was some sort of proto-neocon? Far from it, if for no other reason than that he would no longer have been invited to the best parties had he moved in that direction. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. always liked the inside track.