Schlesinger on Reagan's Faults and Virtues

When I was writing a biography of Robert Kennedy in the late '90s, I had lunch with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the author of the then—and probably still—definitive biography of RFK. Schlesinger, whom I knew slightly, might have brushed me off, but he was gracious and even eager to talk about our mutual subject. Though he was then nearly 80, he knocked back two martinis and tucked into a large steak at New York's Century Club. Then he launched off on cheerful, gossipy tour of the 20th-century horizon, which he had lived as fully as the great leaders he wrote about.

Schlesinger was, in some ways, a walking reproach to modern academic historians. He believed in writing from experience, and he argued that individuals—and not just broad social and economic movements—shaped history.

Though he won two Pulitzer Prizes and a basket of lesser awards, and though he was regarded at times as the reigning authority on Presidents Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, he was never a lonely or bookish scholar. He relished the combat of ideas, often writing op-eds and articles in political journals; he took sides in everyday politics, and even served in the Kennedy White House. (JFK was a little ambivalent about having an in-house historian, at once honored to have such a distinguished scholar on board and not quite sure what was in those notes that Schlesinger was taking.) Scheslinger wrote speeches for liberal Democratic presidential candidates from Adlai Stevenson to RFK.

A bon vivant, he was a fixture in New York literary society, hobnobbing with the likes of Truman Capote and various society heiresses. His life in the world affected his life of the mind. He was sometimes accused of shading history to protect his friends, but in my experience he was pretty scrupulous about getting the facts right.

Schlesinger never stopped observing and reporting. At that Century Club lunch, I learned a few things about Robert Kennedy, but I learned more about an up-and-coming Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush. Schlesinger, with his way of knowing everyone, was a longtime friend of Bush's aunt (and George H.W. Bush's sister) Nancy Ellis. During the early '70s, Schlesinger was often a guest at Sunday lunch at the Ellis house in Wellesley, Mass. Another frequent guest was young George Bush, then a student at Harvard Business School. Schlesinger, always on the lookout for political talent, could see some in the younger Bush. But mostly he was struck by Bush's bitter resentment of the "pointy heads" and liberal intellectuals who had taken over elite Ivy League colleges like Harvard and Yale—pushing aside the hail-fellow fraternity boys like Bush (president of DKE at Yale) and supplanting them as the Big Men on Campus. Schlesinger could see that young Bush was developing a lifelong hatred of liberal intellectual elites out of the personal experience of being shunned by them. This insight always stayed with me as I watched Bush govern with a certain lack of intellectual curiousity and a visceral disdain for anything that The New York Times might try to tell him. Schlesinger understood that early personal experience could shape leaders and that leaders shaped history with their prejudices and cultural baggage.

"I have lived through interesting times and had the luck of knowing some interesting people," Schlesinger once said. That sounds modest, which Schlesinger was not. The point is that he learned from those people and better understood how they shaped their times.