Schlesinger on Reagan's Faults and Virtues

He chronicled American presidents from Andrew Jackson to Robert Kennedy, and closed out his illustrious career with a blast at the presidency of George W. Bush. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a curious intellect, an indefatigable bon vivant, a fierce liberal and a loyal friend. Students of America's politics, and their subjects, offered NEWSWEEK their memories of him. Excerpts:

Arthur was my friend for over 50 years. We first met early in the summer of 1956 when, at Sen. John F. Kennedy's direction, I traveled to Arthur's summer home at Wellfleet on Cape Cod to discuss with him—a close adviser to Adlai Stevenson, the likely repeat presidential nominee of the party that year—the possibility of John F. Kennedy's being selected as Adlai's running mate at the convention. Generously offering to drive me back to the Cape Cod airport, Arthur, to his embarrassment, ran out of gas. I never let him forget that—but, until Feb. 28, 2007, he never "ran out of gas" again.

Arthur never lost his curiosity—or the essential modesty that a historian must have to be genuinely curious. I first met him as a 20-year-old student asking for help on my Williams College senior honors thesis. He was almost 60, but he always treated young people as though they were his peers. When I told him that "A Thousand Days" was the first adult book I ever read, he said, with those snapping eyes and wry grin, "Well, my father was much more distinguished than I am!"

Schlesinger made two particular contributions to the way American history is written and read in 2007. Although he was an academic, he insisted that history should not just be a social science but also page-turning literature. He was very conscious of the fact that his New England ancestor George Bancroft was one of America's great romantic narrative historians. I can remember the chill that went down my spine at the age of 10 when I finished "A Thousand Days"—a thousand pages after the book starts, "It all began in the cold," it ends, "It all ended, as it began, in the cold."

His other contribution was to remind us that as citizens and leaders, we must never stop turning for guidance to our political past. It wasn't by accident that he wrote about Andrew Jackson, FDR and the Kennedys. As a liberal Democrat, he wanted to reach back and seize the best from those eras.

My brother Jack inherited Arthur Schlesinger from Adlai Stevenson, and for nearly half a century he was a beloved member of our family. As Arthur said at the beginning of their beautiful friendship in 1960, he was "nostalgically for Stevenson, ideologically for Humphrey and realistically for Kennedy." One of the principal contributions to Jack's victory in 1960 was Arthur's campaign book, "Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?" In that very close election, Arthur's book made a very real difference—perhaps all the difference. Jack couldn't have had the New Frontier without him.

We loved everything about Arthur, even his bow ties. He told us he learned the habit at Harvard—"It's really impossible to spill anything on them, and they don't get caught in zippers."

Jack and Arthur were almost exact contemporaries. They were born the same year, and Arthur said he vaguely knew Jack by sight in Harvard Yard in the 1930s. The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named them both in its list of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year for 1947. Jack had just been elected to Congress, and Arthur had just won his first Pulitzer Prize for "The Age of Jackson."

Arthur wrote about history with unsurpassed eloquence and insight, and he also helped shape history with his wisdom and scholarship. He was appalled by the war in Iraq and believed deeply that if we don't learn from history, we're condemned to repeat it. As he said last November, "Thirty years ago, we suffered a military defeat fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests. Vietnam was hopeless enough, but to repeat the same arrogant folly 30 years later in Iraq is a gross instance of national stupidity." To me, Arthur Schlesinger represented the best of the liberal and progressive ideal of the 20th century—and the 21st century, too.

Arthur Schlesinger had many worlds and many lives. He was an historian, a critic, a political activist, a public official, an international celebrity, a husband, a father and a son. I will remember him, of course, for his extraordinary contributions to historical scholarship and public discourse. But I remember him most of all as a warm and generous friend. He was a man of my father's generation. [Brinkley's father was the celebrated television journalist, David Brinkley]. When we met for lunch over the years, I ordered a salad and a Diet Coke, and he would typically order a steak and a martini. But I never thought of him in generational terms, because he was always so engaged with the issues of our shared time, always so interesting a partner in conversation, always willing to take my ideas seriously at the same time that he defended and defined his own. A few years ago, when I became provost at Columbia, he asked me over lunch—with some incredulity—why I would give up writing and scholarship to become an administrator. To Arthur, writing was a constant and indispensable friend, a deeply rooted part of his identity, and he could not himself imagine taking on responsibilities that would conflict with his work. I pointed out that he had left academia for a time to become a presidential adviser, and he conceded the point. But I know that he saw his role in government as part of a lifelong effort to understand politics and power; that he believed being himself a figure in history was part of what enabled him to understand history.

As much as Arthur loved writing, he also loved being out in the world. He had hundreds of friends from many areas of life and many places, and he was an inveterate attender of parties and dinners—always arriving wearing his trademark bow tie with his beautiful wife, Alexandra, on his arm and towering over him. He was an icon of society just as he was an icon of historical writing. But he was not simply an ornament at these events. He was unfailingly interested in what other people were thinking, and unfailingly interesting in return—never condescending or aloof, rarely frivolous, always engaging. It was fitting, perhaps, that he spent his last night in a restaurant surrounded by people—most of whom, I'm sure, felt lucky to be there with him. I know I always did.

America has lost one of its greatest historians and most devoted citizens. In lucid, elegant prose, Arthur Schlesinger helped us to understand our past and urged us to use that understanding to build a brighter, fairer future. He looked beyond the fleeting headlines to the larger trends and cycles of history. In an age in which the ephemeral so often takes center stage, he kept his eyes on the prize, the constant search for "the more perfect Union" of our founders' dreams.

We will sorely miss that small man with his enormous intellect, generous spirit, and passionate belief in the promise of America. We loved his books and even more, cherished his friendship and counsel. Arthur Schlesinger was a national treasure.

We always enjoyed reading his work and felt his passion when we read his accounts of events. Like few other historians, Arthur could make you feel like you were there. We remain grateful for the support he showed us over the years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

My first encounter with Arthur was as a student in his history class at Harvard during my year as a Nieman Fellow. It was in 1958, and midsemester he announced that he was leaving us for two weeks to observe the British elections, anticipating—in error as it turned out—that Labour would oust the Tories.

He promised a "substitute" teacher during his absence, and we anticipated a graduate teaching assistant. On the morning of his departure, Arthur introduced the person who would replace him with these words: "I present your professor for the next two weeks—the Arthur Schlesinger. Accept no substitutes."

And, then his father, the distinguished historian and retired teacher, stepped to the podium to our delight and applause. It was a morning to remember, and it reminds me all these years later that beyond Arthur's great sense of history was a great sense of family and a great sense of humor.

That was half a century ago, and, in the ensuing years, there have been many encounters during our time in the Kennedy administration and, most often, more recently, as we have co-chaired the annual Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards, which he founded following the publication of his fine book on RFK.

His gift for writing is legendary, and he constantly encouraged others to write. As general editor of the Times Books Series on 24 presidents, he recruited many friends to become presidential biographers. In my case, it was to be James K. Polk, the ignored and forgotten 11th president. "Why me?" I asked. "Polk," he answered, "was from Tennessee and you are the only person I know in Tennessee who can write a simple, declarative sentence." Again, the sense of history and the sense of humor.

In November of last year, I moderated a panel with three noted historians, Alan Brinkley, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sean Wilentz, honoring Arthur at the John F. Kennedy Library. Arthur arrived in his wheelchair, Alexandra at his side. Before the program, I sat beside him and asked if he would close the program with some remarks. He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Well, of course, I will. What would you expect?"

When his moment came, he delivered his telling remarks in a measured and studied tone and held a standing-room crowd with every word. It was, as I think on it, a prayer (and I don't know that Arthur prayed much) that the nation recognize the intrinsic power of history in understanding the present, in evaluating the future—and recognize, as well, the illuminating role of the historian. It was, I think, his valedictory. Vintage Arthur Schlesinger!

The country has lost its premiere historian, liberalism has lost its most reasoned and unapologetic voice and I have lost a friend of 50 years.