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Minor Matters

Updated on January 11, 2013
This is Max.  He kills things--erasers, squeaky toys, action figures.
This is Max. He kills things--erasers, squeaky toys, action figures.
The Kennedys, a political dynasty murdered, but one that Schlesinger saw as promising America a hopeful future--young, dynamic, radical gentlemen of the political game.
The Kennedys, a political dynasty murdered, but one that Schlesinger saw as promising America a hopeful future--young, dynamic, radical gentlemen of the political game.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
LBJ, not a gentleman, but he got things done, and then Vietnam got him done.
LBJ, not a gentleman, but he got things done, and then Vietnam got him done.
In order to keep America on the path of freedom, LBJ had to fight the southern conservatives he called 'the Confederates'.
In order to keep America on the path of freedom, LBJ had to fight the southern conservatives he called 'the Confederates'.
It is tough to find anyone who speaks well of Nixon personally, though 'Only Nixon goes to China'.  Schlesinger certainly can't do it.
It is tough to find anyone who speaks well of Nixon personally, though 'Only Nixon goes to China'. Schlesinger certainly can't do it.

The devil is in the details: or, alternatively, it is the minor, neglected fact or observation slipping through the major historical thread that proves interesting or illuminating. Once you know who Nixon was, it is not his mendacity or malice that surprises you, but the vision of him standing and smiling watching a fire he has accidentally, or intentionally, caused that remains disturbing, and somehow encapsulates a facet of who Nixon was that would otherwise escape or be difficult to express. This illumination does not come upon one in an instant; it is a matter of compiling and comparing, of working the history, the tales from many men and women, none of whom saw the same thing in the same way even though they shared time and space, into a multi-threaded narrative that becomes an approach to the fullness of the past. It is sometimes said that we cannot understand the past because we were not there, that there are truths of history--the emotional tenor of the moment, for example, or the full impact of a perception--that cannot be shared across time. This is true; but it is equally true that the men and women of the past did not have the whole of the moment available to them either. They were confined by what they knew, by their experiences and their biases, by the clutter of their everyday lives which narrowed their vision, or twisted it. There is no single historical Truth to be found, beyond the high school history test accumulations of dates and Major Events. The rest, the joyful, troublesome, perplexing, adventurous side of history continues to be a work in progress, and it is a work that tells us as much about ourselves--about our desires, priorities, mental map, and fears--as it tells us about the past.

The first detail of my current reading is this: you can find a lot at the Dollar Store. I was at one recently picking my son up dinosaur erasers for school after our dog, Max, ate his orange stegosaurus. Jack Russells like the taste of erasers, and now my son has only two dinosaur erasers left from a trove of four. The other two are dinosaur bits in the vacuum bag. Anyway, I found the erasers and a new pencil sharpener for the kid, and something for me: The Journals of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. And it was only a dollar, so I did not have to feel guilty for buying myself a hardback.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was born in 1917 and died in 2007. The year before he died he asked his sons to edit his journals for publication. Why should anyone care what this man wrote in his journals? Well, Schlesinger was an important historian, a liberal who attempted to walk, and help define, the line between reform and revolution, a servant of politicians as a speech-writer and a politician. He served Jack Kennedy as an Assistant to the President from 1961 until Kennedy's assassination, and in this position he observed the Kennedy brothers, Jackie, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He moved in the orbits of power--the Kennedys, LBJ, Adlai Stevenson--and the lesser, equally ambitious, men who served the powers of the day--Henry Kissinger, Bill Moyers, and himself.

I met Schlesinger through his Age of Jackson, published in 1945. He was not a historian who could claim the mythical 'objectivity' that many historians have striven to portray as writers and public figures. He was a committed liberal, and his political convictions determined the subjects he chose and the way he treated them: Roosevelt and his New Deal, the Kennedys, Nixon, Vietnam, and multiculturalism. His biases do not disturb me. The reader knows what they are and is thus forewarned, and, if he/she wishes to be, forearmed. Historical objectivity is a pretense, not a fact, and I prefer to deal with historians who know that they are not objective, but are, as the rest of us, political and social beings with beliefs, biases, and preferences that play a role in their intellectual lives. Those historians who became most prominent in the 1960s and 1970s were largely of this type--activists and historians, liberal or conservative, unapologetic in their activism. They did not apologize because they believed the country was important and that they could, and should, do something to help it.

Schlesinger's journals were not the handwritten notes of a private man. His secretary provided him with typed clean copies of his daily thoughts, the record he chose to keep, and it was these that his sons edited to form a single volume containing that they thought most interesting and important in their father's notes, those thoughts and observations that reminded them of the life he had led and the man he was. I am almost halfway through it now, and, safe at this distance, quite amused by the men of power and his relationship to them.

Schlesinger was seduced by Kennedy, but he knew he was being seduced, and watched it occur with interest. He did not trust Kennedy. He was aware that he was being lied to, and that Jack Kennedy suffered no qualms of conscience about deceiving those around him so long as it served his ultimate purpose. He thought Adlai Stevenson was a better man, but that Kennedy would make the better president. What made Kennedy better? Kennedy understood power, and would use it without hesitation, while Stevenson seemed uncomfortable with leadership, with power, with the necessity of its use. He temporized and apologized, whereas Kennedy did not. Kennedy was, as the second Bush would later insist of himself, a "decider".

Kennedy was ultimately elevated into sainthood in Schlesinger's life, and in the minds of many Americans, not by what he did do, but by his early death at an assassin's hand. It made him seem a better man, a better president, than he in fact was, and made permanent bedrock attributes those differences in position his enemies assigned to him, even when he did little to merit them. Thus did Kennedy become a beacon of civil rights, when that was a subject upon which he proceeded with a frustrating degree of caution, and an opponent of the CIA and Vietnam, when his relations with both were more murky than white knight-ish. He was the best hope of a generation, in an administration whose public face was youth and energy, and as the murdered president he became the repository of the hopes of the young liberals, for he was no longer alive to betray them.

Schlesinger was a Stevenson man, but he changed sides, a change made easier for him by Adlai's temporizing which allowed a grace period between his denial that he wanted the Democratic nomination and his acceptance of that nomination demanded by others for Schlesinger to act. He did not feel wholly good about it, but he was sure he had chosen the better candidate, and Schlesinger enthusiastically admits a love for the game of conventions, for politicking itself as a sort of art form and intellectual engagement, and his love for politics as a sport and a mission kept him happy in Kennedy's administration, despite continuing failures of JFK to live up to the liberal goals Schlesinger desired himself.

And it is here, when Schlesinger enters Kennedy's orbit, that some of those wonderful, devilish details are encountered.

  • Why did Schlesinger admire Kennedy and despise LBJ, despite LBJ having a clearer record on several issues close to Schlesinger's heart--civil rights and poverty among them? I think the answer may have much to do with class, with the sporting gentleman Jack Kennedy compared to the redneck LBJ. August 6, 1959, Schlesinger went on Kennedys boat as one in a family jaunt, shooting at bottles floating in the water. Kennedy compared himself to Stevenson, as they were gentlemen politicians, and Johnson to Nixon, men who were certainly not gentlemen, but professionals. Kennedy stressed Nixon's lack of taste as an indication of his lack of substance, as a sing of those things that made Nixon bad for the country. And one gets the feeling that Schlesinger agrees with him. It was easy for Kennedy to seduce Schlesinger because they both understood the sport at which they played, the deceptions which were to be expected in it, and the range of behaviors that were allowable to gentlemen of the game. LBJ was not a gentleman. He was vulgar, mean, and vengeful. He, too, understood power and was willing to deploy it, but his bullying looked like what it was, bullying, without the refined atmosphere and touch of something richer behind the curtain that Kennedy brought to the encounter. (Of course, Vietnam was also an issue in Schlesinger's response to LBJ, but his basic objections to LBJ were not based on policy).
  • In 1960, Henry Kissinger and Schlesinger spoke. Both were academics bringing their skills to national politicians. Kissinger said that he would do nothing to aid Nixon. Later, he would do much to aid Nixon.
  • The Bay of Pigs was a failure from beginning to end, and everyone involved in it knew that it was a failure, except for the gung-ho CIA men who pressed it forward, enraptured by their own dream of Castro's downfall as part of some Cold War morality play disconnected from strategic and tactical realities. Schlesinger knew it; Kennedy suspected it. Others in the administration had their own objections, which they kept to themselves until the debacle was complete. The President's prestige was riding on the event; he wanted it, so it must be done. The President assumed his advisers knew more than he, were better informed and had better access to intelligence not shared directly with him. And Kennedy preferred action to inaction, although he also believed strongly in limiting his risks, and so he downgraded the American support necessary to give the infiltration/invasion a chance, and still went forward with it. Said JFK, March 28, 1961: 'If we have to get rid of those 800 men, it is much better to dump them in Cuba than in the United States.' Cuban refugee militants were a problem and the Bay of Pigs was a way to silence them, to give them something, without sacrificing much, except, if it should feel, a few weeks of reputation that could be recuperated through other actions and programs. Of course, Kennedy would blame the CIA for what happened at the Bay of Pigs, and so would most Americans--but, should he have gone forward with the grave doubts he had as to its possibility for success? And was it the fault of the CIA that he did so, or does the blame have to be spread more evenly throughout the administration, with due recognition of the flaws and missteps of the CIA?
  • Schlesinger did a lot of scholarly work on the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal. After the death of Eleanor Roosevelt, he regretted not speaking to her more fully, and he appears to have made up for that neglect by interviewing and writing extensively of Jackie Kennedy. He worked at length with a less important and vital woman as compensation for not working at length with an important and vital one.

And that is as far as I have gotten so far. But I am having fun.


President Nixon: Alone in the White House
President Nixon: Alone in the White House

Home of the Nixon fire-loving episode.



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