Schlesinger on Reagan's Faults and Virtues

On a Saturday evening in Georgetown in late 1946, the columnist Joe Alsop was giving a dinner at his house in the 2700 block of Dumbarton. The guests were predictably drawn from the glamorous and the powerful; Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and influential journalists frequently came to Alsop's table. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., not yet 30 and already a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, was there, as were the Henry Cabot Lodges. Mrs. Lodge, Schlesinger noted in a letter to his parents, was "exceedingly attractive." There was one other guest of interest: a congressman-elect from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. "Kennedy seemed very sincere and not unintelligent," Schlesinger wrote, "but kind of on the conservative side."

The scene is classic Schlesinger: there he is, at once a historian of the past and a player in the politics of the moment, savoring a good dinner with good company, surveying the table with an astute eye—by turns generous, pitiless and politically incisive. Schlesinger, who died last week in New York City at 89, knew everyone and seemed to know everything. He loved parties, martinis, politics, the movies, bow ties (which he favored because FDR and Churchill did) and bourbon whisky; he could effortlessly move from debating Franklin Roosevelt's prewar policy of aid to Great Britain to parsing the relative merits of Kentucky's Knob Creek versus Tennessee's Jack Daniel's.

Born in 1917, the son of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, the eminent Harvard historian, young Arthur loved his childhood in Cambridge; he immersed himself in the works of G. A. Henty, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. His early reading, followed by Exeter and Harvard, nurtured a vibrant literary and historical imagination.

In his books and essays Schlesinger chronicled the intellectual, the popular and the political with a sure hand, recapturing, in Winston Churchill's phrase, "the passions of former days" with such force that a reader can virtually smell the smoke of Roosevelt's cigarette or feel the cold of JFK's Inaugural noontime. He was a master of narrative, of the well-turned phrase and the cinematic scene, but prided himself on breaking new analytical ground. "History is indeed an argument without end," he wrote. "That is why it is so much fun."

And he always had fun. As a child, he corresponded with H. L. Mencken, who contributed to Arthur's stamp collection; he turned his undergraduate work on the labor organizer and intellectual Orestes Brownson into his first book. "The only other senior honors thesis to achieve trade publication in these years," he recalled, "was written by a young concentrator in government, two years behind me, whom I knew only by sight in the Yard—'Why England Slept' by John F. Kennedy '40."

With a lifetime knack for finding himself in the center of things, Schlesinger was in England between Munich and Hitler's invasion of Poland. During the war he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. In 1946, Schlesinger published his breakthrough work, "The Age of Jackson," and won the Pulitzer Prize (the first of two). He was 28 years old.

Monumental books followed: "The Age of Roosevelt," "The Vital Center," "A Thousand Days," "Robert Kennedy and His Times," "The Imperial Presidency." A hard-line New Deal liberal—a faith he kept all his life—and fierce anti-communist, he not only wrote history but made it, too, serving Adlai Stevenson and John and Robert Kennedy. On Friday, November 22, 1963, Schlesinger was lunching in the NEWSWEEK offices with Katharine Graham and John Kenneth Galbraith when word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. "I thought it was a ghastly joke," Schlesinger recalled. After the assassination he came to New York, where he resumed writing, teaching and commenting on the storms of the time.

Schlesinger was gracious and generous, but could be haughty. He recalled an incident with his mother, Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger, a kinswoman of George Bancroft, the great early American historian. As a child, Arthur was interrupting her, and when she asked him to stop, he said, "Mother, how can I be quiet if you insist upon making statements that are not factually accurate?" Still, he was self-aware. In his teenage years, he fell in with a crowd that was "pseudo-sophisticated, smoking and making supposedly witty allusions. It was a kind of group which I find, to my shame, I can fit into easily."

He wrote quickly, confidently and fluidly, with a fondness for quotation. (One 20-page chapter in his final book, "War and the American Presidency," cites Hegel, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Burke, Marc Bloch, Crane Brinton, Andrew Jackson, Alexander Hamilton, George Marshall, Churchill, Arnold Toynbee, Mark Twain, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Wilson, "The Music Man," Reinhold Niebuhr, Herbert Butterfield, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Richard Goodwin and the Book of Ecclesiastes.) Late in life he worried that he had spent too much time on op-eds at the expense of books, but his journalistic output reflected his deep engagement with the life of the nation.

He never slowed down, moving through Manhattan with his beloved wife, Alexandra, a tall, striking woman who towered over her husband. A typical evening included catching "Hardball With Chris Matthews," which Schlesinger loved, riding from his apartment overlooking the East River to the Century Association, on 43rd Street, to have a drink with Carlos Fuentes and then dining with Mary Soames, Churchill's last surviving child.

To the end he was interested in every aspect of life, from Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet to the future of Iraq to attractive women. The last time I saw him was at Christmastime, at a party at my house. I introduced him to Louisa Thomas, the great-granddaughter of Norman Thomas, the pacifist and perennial Socialist candidate for president. "I knew your great-grandfather," Schlesinger told her, and then chatted about the tensions between radicalism and capitalism in the 1930s. A very pretty blonde in her mid-20s, Louisa spoke with us for a time, and after she walked away, Schlesinger turned to me. "We have forgotten how close we came to revolution in the days before FDR," he said, slowly. His mind was on the Age of Roosevelt, and the sweep of history. After a moment, his eyes twinkled and he gestured toward Louisa, who was still nearby. "She is quite a dish, isn't she?" he said, then disappeared into the New York night, charmed and charming.