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Former Kennedy insider dead at 89

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March 1, 2007

By HILLEL ITALIE

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and “court philosopher” of the Kennedy administration who remained a proud liberal even as others dared not use the word, has died. He was 89.

Schlesinger was dining with family members in Manhattan on Wednesday when he suffered a heart attack, his son Stephen said. He died at New York Downtown Hospital.

Schlesinger was among the most prominent historians of his time, and was widely respected as learned and readable, with a panoramic vision of American culture and politics. He received a National Book Award for “Robert Kennedy and His Times” and a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for “A Thousand Days,” his memoir/chronicle of President Kennedy’s administration. He also won a Pulitzer, in 1946, for “The Age of Jackson,” his landmark chronicle of Andrew Jackson’s administration.

“(He had) enormous stamina and a kind of energy and drive which most people don’t have, and it kept him going, all the way through his final hours,” Stephen Schlesinger said early Tuesday. “He never stopped writing, he never stopped participating in public affairs, he never stopped having his views about politics and his love of this nation.”

With his bow ties and horn-rimmed glasses, Schlesinger seemed the very image of a reserved, tweedy scholar. But he was an assured member of the so-called Eastern elite, friendly with everyone from Mary McCarthy to Katherine Graham and enough of a sport to swim fully clothed in the pool of then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

He was a longtime confidant of the Kennedys, a fellow Harvard man who served in President Kennedy’s administration and was often criticized for idealizing the family, especially for not mentioning the president’s extramarital affairs.

“At no point in my experience did his preoccupation with women — apart from Caroline crawling around the Oval Office — interfere with his conduct of the public business,” Schlesinger later wrote.

Liberalism declined in his lifetime to the point where politicians feared using the word, but Schlesinger’s opinions remained liberal, and influential, whether old ones on the “imperial presidency,” or newer ones on the Iraq war. For both historians and Democratic officials, he was a kind of professor emeritus, valued for his professional knowledge and for his personal past.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, and the son of a prominent historian, he was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger Jr., but later gave himself his father’s middle name, Meier. Family friends included James Thurber, historian Charles A. Beard and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter.

Schlesinger attended Phillips Exeter Academy and in 1938 graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University. During World War II, Schlesinger drafted some statements for President Roosevelt and served as an intelligence analyst for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA.

Schlesinger emerged as a historian with “The Age of Jackson.” Published in 1945, when he was just 27, the book offered a new, class-based interpretation of the Jackson administration, destroying the old myth that the country was once an egalitarian paradise. The book remained influential despite eventual criticism — even by Schlesinger — for overlooking Jackson’s appeasement of slavery and his harsh treatment of Indians.

Schlesinger was deeply involved with the Democratic Party, and even when writing about the past he minded the present. “The Age of Jackson,” for instance, was completed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and its characterization of President Jackson as a great 19th century populist was an acknowledged defense of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Like many liberals of the 1940s, Schlesinger was also trying to reconcile support of the New Deal to the start of the Cold War. He responded by condemning both the far right and the far left, any system that denied the “perpetual tension” of a dynamic democracy. “World without conflict is the world of fantasy,” he wrote in “The Age of Jackson.”

In 1946, Schlesinger helped found Americans for Democratic Action, a leading organization of anti-communist liberals. Three years later, he published the influential “The Vital Center,” which advocated a liberal domestic policy and anti-communist foreign policy. The book’s title became a common political phrase, still in use decades later, and Schlesinger’s call for defending American ideals abroad was endlessly revived as Democrats debated U.S. involvement in countries from Bosnia to Iraq.

In the 1950s, Schlesinger became increasingly involved in electoral politics, supporting Adlai Stevenson, the erudite Illinois governor and two-time loser to Dwight Eisenhower for the presidency. In 1960, the historian switched his loyalty to Kennedy, even as he acknowledged that Stevenson was a “much richer, more thoughtful, more creative person.”

Liberals were wary of Kennedy, but Schlesinger, tired of Stevenson’s dreamy detachment, was drawn to Kennedy’s “cool, measured, intelligent concern.” Over time, he came to embody Schlesinger’s ideal for a head of state: charismatic but not dogmatic; progressive yet practical; a realist, he once observed, brilliantly disguised as a romantic.

Kennedy appointed the Schlesinger a special assistant, an unofficial “court philosopher” of symbolic, if not practical power. The high-minded historian was soon trapped in the tangle of superpower politics: the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the disastrous attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Schlesinger was opposed to the plan, he later wrote, but acknowledged helping the administration suppress a pre-invasion story by The New Republic that correctly reported the U.S. was training Cuban mercenaries. Had the press not cooperated, it might “have spared the country a disaster,” a regretful Schlesinger recalled.

His time in government was brief. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the historian soon left the administration of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. (“With Kennedy gone, it was no longer exhilarating,” Schlesinger explained). Schlesinger then supported Robert Kennedy’s brief, tragic 1968 campaign.

Being a liberal, Schlesinger once observed, means regarding man as “neither brute nor angel.” Whether discussing the Kennedys, Vietnam or the power of the presidency, Schlesinger sought moderation, the middle course. He blamed the Vietnam War on the moral extremism of the right and left and worried that the executive branch had become “imperial,” calling for a “strong presidency within the Constitution.” He saw American history itself as a continuing “cycle” between liberal and conservative power.

In 1998, Schlesinger opposed Republican-led attempts to have President Clinton removed from office, and he later criticized President George W. Bush for his doctrine of “preventive war,” saying “I think the whole notion of America as the world’s judge, jury and executioner is a tragically mistaken notion.”

Schlesinger had six children — four from his first marriage, to the author Marian Cannon, and two from his second, to Alexandra Emmet.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

One Response to Former Kennedy insider dead at 89

  1. JimZ

    March 1, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Sounds to me that Schlesinger was right in the American mainstream. Well, until the last 6 years when suddenly, it was OK to be a freakin’ Empire (to some people).