In recent years, keeping political diaries has fallen out of fashion. I blame this on a young Clinton-era Treasury aide named Josh Steiner, whose private journal was subpoenaed in a long-forgotten scandal. Anyone interested in history will suffer for the decline of this art form (and no, blogging is not a substitute). To see what we may be missing in the future, consider the astonishing case of the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Shortly before he died earlier this year, he instructed two of his sons to prepare his diaries for publication. The resulting book, "Journals: 1952–2000," contains juicy morsels on every one of its 858 pages.
The entries are proof that a half century of dining regularly with important people—he was derided by his critics as a toadying schmoozer—can produce significant field research. Schlesinger somehow managed to turn out 18 trenchant works of history while enjoying his martini, his steak and everyone else's finest gossip. He was a warm and generous man, but when he jotted down his observations, look out! The book contains not just his witty aperçus, but those of hundreds of A-list friends, some of whom are still alive and will blanch at seeing private lunches in print.
The presidential scuttlebutt is prime. Harry Truman insults Picasso and is perplexed by Matisse, whose paintings he describes as "the virgin with a couple of big tits hanging out of her dress." The 1952 and 1956 loser Adlai Stevenson, for whom Schlesinger wrote speeches, is a man of "portentous generalization." On the day JFK was shot in 1963 (Schlesinger learned of it while dining with NEWSWEEK editors in New York), Stevenson, who thought Kennedy had mistreated him, was "smiling and chipper," a lapse that will "take me long to forgive," Schlesinger writes.
The journals display Schlesinger's great blind spot, his love for the Kennedys, in real time. For instance, he easily swallows JFK's phony assurances that he's not receiving cortisone shots for his Addison's disease. We learn how much President Kennedy despises his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower; he tells the historian repeatedly that he is "terribly cold and terribly vain. In fact, he is a s––t."
Schlesinger never worked for any president besides Kennedy, but he has lots to report about all of them. When LBJ died, Schlesinger writes of Johnson's "compulsive, even lunatic, strains." In the case of Richard Nixon, who thought Schlesinger symbolized elitism, the contempt is mutual. In 1971, Pat Moynihan (then working for Nixon) informs him that "the last thing [Nixon] wants to do is to give satisfaction to people he hates—people like you." Later, Nixon becomes his neighbor on the Upper East Side.
Schlesinger picks up much of his best stuff from friend and fellow gossip Henry Kissinger, who tells him in 1981 that Nixon had been his old, "poisonous" self at Anwar Sadat's funeral, leading Gerald Ford to remark, "Sometimes I wish I had never pardoned that son of a bitch." Later he quotes Kissinger describing George H.W. Bush as "a very petty man" and Donald Rumsfeld as "the rottenest person he had known in government."
Ever the unapologetic New Deal intellectual, the diarist rues the end of the style of Democratic politics that spanned from FDR to George McGovern in 1972, which he characterizes as "open, curious, ironic, civilized, questioning." He confesses that in 1976 he could vote for neither Ford nor Jimmy Carter, whom he calls "a mean little man" unwilling to listen to anyone. Likewise, "loopy" Ronald Reagan is privately described by his secretary of State, George Shultz, as a president who "never ingests anything you tell him."
When Bill Clinton is elected, Schlesinger picks up early on Clinton's "Nixon-style paranoia about the media." But he comes to admire both Clintons, if not their "historically disgusting" use of the Lincoln Bedroom for contributors. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he publicly defends Clinton's right to lie about sex (and quotes Brooke Astor saying to Pamela Harriman, "Why couldn't Mr. Clinton have stayed with girls of his own class?"). Al Gore fares less well. He has a "holistic, even mystical fervor" that reminds Schlesinger of one of FDR's vice presidents, Henry Wallace, known for his weakness for gurus.
The private score-settling is fun reading. Joan Didion is "a viperish, whispering little creature." When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis tells him that there's no one she'd rather sit next to, he writes that it "would be more convincing if she ever invited us over for dinner." He calls the play "Angels in America" "pretentious crap" and dishes about Norman Mailer cheating on his wife.
But there's also some unintentional pathos in his social ambitions: at 76, he agrees to interview Bianca Jagger for German Vogue. Some of his most memorable books, like "The Cycles of American History," he wrote for money because he was "perennially broke." No tears. For Arthur Schlesinger's efforts, the rest of us are richer.