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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

By Louis Auchincloss

Arthur was one of our long-time members and a former president; he was too well known to many of us, and too well read by most all of us to need comment from me as to his fame as a great historian as witnessed by innumerable awards, honorary degrees, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes—all in the plural, rather than the singular. But it is rather as a creator of history and a vivid witness of history as he created it with others that I wish to recall him today.

The wonderful edition of some of his journals just published by two of his sons has already been compared to the memoirs of the duc de Saint-Simon, our main source of knowledge of France in the court of Louis XIV. But the duc de Saint-Simon, who had had only a half-dozen interviews with the Sun King, had nothing like first-hand knowledge of his own era and the people in it. Had Arthur been a Frenchman in the 17th century, he would have not only been an intimate friend of the monarch, and all of his mistresses and ministers, he would have been the confidant of Colbert, Turenne, Madame de Sévigné, Corneille, Racine, Molière, and even of Pascal. For Arthur was a friend of most of the makers of 20th-century America in government, in national affairs, in entertainment, in journalism, and in the arts. He went everywhere and saw everyone, and his shrewd, vivid judgments of people, both those whom he loved and those whom he merely met, included their wants as well as their virtues. It is fortunate for us that his energy was never exhausted by endless parties and late hours. He wrote, “I love the drama of campaigning: the airplanes, the motorcades, the hotel rooms and telephone calls and speech crises, the policy conferences, the tense decisions, and the constant air of excitement and anxiety and passion and fatigue.” Yet despite all these constant activities, and in all my lifetime of editors, I have never had an editor who was more available than Arthur. We did two books together, biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and of Calvin Coolidge, and no matter what he was doing—he’d be writing a book, he’d be writing a speech, he’d be writing an article, he’d be on his way to attending a conference, and he’d have a couple of parties to go to that night—I’d always get him on the telephone and he was always ready to see me. How he did it was perfectly miraculous. He would be there, and he’d already read the part of the book I’d wanted, he’d already have his suggestions, his editorial work, his intentions. How he would come up with this is inconceivable to me, but I’ve never known an editor more available. And many of them are not.

Arthur was always strictly impartial as a political observer in assessing the moral stature of even those candidates to whom he was most closely devoted. At the head of this list were Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Although his friendship with the latter was a far deeper thing than with the former, he was yet willing to concede that in some ways Stevenson had the finer character. He saw in Adlai the genuine modesty of a profoundly civilized man, while in Kennedy, sometimes devious and even ruthless, he sensed the basic instinct for power necessary for success in a hard world. Arthur backed Kennedy over Stevenson largely because he did not think that Stevenson, though a potentially great president, could beat Nixon.

Arthur never deviated from his conviction that the liberalism and practicality and charm and goodwill of John Kennedy, and his brothers Bobby and Ted, made them as great material for the White House as was possible to expect from a difficult election process. He did not see any such possibility in any Republican candidate of his day, though he had a certain respect for President Eisenhower. He was bitterly opposed to presidential wars undertaken without congressional consent and to unilateral U.S. intervention in the hemisphere.

Arthur makes it clear in his published memoirs that he believed that had Kennedy been president at the time of the Vietnam War, he would never have increased it, he would never have poured troops in. As we know, he was constantly at the right hand of the president during his entire term. Even seven years ago, when what he boldly called the “gang of five” in a speech at the Century took away the election of our president and gave it to the people who are now running it, Arthur was appalled, and I believe that had the election not gone the way it did, had the gang of five been reduced by one judicial vote, the disaster that happened to America would not have happened, because the disaster also included the fact that in these last seven years the all-important advice of Arthur was not available to the people who are running the nation. I think we wouldn’t have had the war if Arthur had survived and had been in a position to advise the president at that time.

When I saw him shortly before the end, I’d put to him, semi-joking, “Arthur, what would you do today if you were president?” And he’d say, “I’d take every one of our boys home, NOW!”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 6, 2007.

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