Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 1917-2007

When Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich and Paul Starr first conceived the idea for a liberal magazine that was to become The American Prospect, one of the first people they consulted was Arthur Schlesinger. It was an obvious choice. As a historian, activist and writer on current affairs, Schlesinger had been an intellectual beacon for American liberals since the Forties. He agreed to become one of the magazine's founding sponsors, wrote a major article for our inaugural issue, and as recently as 2004, contributed an election post-mortem predicting that hubris and incompetence would be the Republicans' undoing. We're fortunate that Schlesinger's friend and colleague from the Kennedy White House, Theodore Sorensen, has contributed this appreciation. (A shorter version of this piece appeared in our April 2007 issue). Like his great friend John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last year, Schlesinger played a central role in defining modern American liberalism -- and inspiring those of us who turn out The American Prospect.

* * *

Ever since 1965, when our two books on JFK were rivals for publication and public attention, some journalistic would-be trouble makers have asked me whether I resented Arthur Schlesinger as a competitor. Competitor? It could be as easily asked whether I regarded tennis champion Arthur Ashe as a competitor! Arthur Schlesinger was an intellectual giant, liberal champion, prodigious writer and leading scholar while I was still figuratively in knee pants.

We first met early in the summer of 1956 when, at Senator 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 Democratic Party that year -- the possibility of John F. Kennedy's being selected as Adlai's running mate at the convention. Arthur generously offered to drive me back to the Cape Cod airport, but, to his embarrassment, ran out of gas en-route. I never let him forget that -- but, until February 28, 2007, he never "ran out of gas" again.

In the 1960 campaign, Vice President Nixon and his fellow Republicans derided the Democrats as "the party of Schlesinger, Galbraith and Bowles" -- a vast overstatement, but it is certainly true that all three were not only my heroes but my occasional helpmates during the campaign.

Even before 1956 and 1960, I had been one of the millions of Arthur's admiring readers for longer than I can remember. He was one of the founders of the anti-communist liberal organization, Americans For Democratic Action, a beleaguered branch of which my brothers and I founded in Lincoln, Nebraska some 60 years ago.

Over the years, presidents have appointed military experts and advisers to their respective White House staffs, as well as lawyers, economists, environmentalists, and professional politicians. Kennedy was the first to appoint a full-time historian -- and what better historian for that unique position than Arthur Schlesinger, a winner of the highest awards in history and literature, the author of outstanding books about Presidents Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, among others, and a scholar of American politics since its earliest days. He provided JFK with both advice and information stemming from his knowledge of the president's predecessors, especially Roosevelt. How many "fireside chats" did FDR actually give? How active was he in the mid-term Congressional elections? How did he balance as well as encourage the diverse voices among his advisers? Arthur was invaluable.

He also doubled as a skilled presidential speechwriter, bringing to mind (in the delightful anecdote JFK and I undoubtedly learned from him), Jefferson's use of White House gardeners who could double as waiters at State dinners. Arthur, having contributed texts to the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, assisted James Wechsler with JFK's memorable address to New York's Liberal Party in the 1960 post-convention campaign. In the White House, he had the laboring oar on at least three of President Kennedy's outstanding speeches -- the Yale Commencement, the Amherst tribute to Robert Frost and the role of poetry, and an early address to the University of California-Berkeley. Undoubtedly there were many others that I cannot now recall.

Arthur played many roles in the Kennedy White House: a counselor who advised, in vain, against the Bay of Pigs (which proved to be Kennedy's first and worst fiasco), a bridge to the American intellectual and academic community, which had largely been ignored since FDR, and to the rising young leaders on the left in the Third World and Europe, who have largely been ignored since Kennedy. But he did not neglect his duties as official White House historian -- suggesting to the President procedures by which essential facts and documents could be preserved for JFK's own memoirs, and fortunately keeping careful notes of his own that would be the basis for his magnificent books on both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy in the years that followed.

Arthur had another unusual White House post as movie critic and impresario. From Russia With Love was his selection the night before President Kennedy left for Texas in November 1963.

One of the many reasons I am obligated to pay tribute to Arthur following his tragic death on February 28, 2007, is that he was -- I have reason to believe -- the real author of the encomium I most treasured in my youth. I am reasonably certain that President Kennedy, having agreed in 1963 to write an introduction to my little book of Columbia University lectures, Decision Making in the White House, requested a draft from Arthur, and signed off on those generous, gracious phrases about not only my book but also my work in the White House.

Arthur was not only my friend and White House colleague, he was in the last 40 years also my host on many occasions in New York City, my periodic lunch companion, and my collaborator on a 2006 New York Times essay on how John F. Kennedy would have gone about taking our country out of Iraq. On occasion, he was my travel companion to Kennedy-related retrospectives in Rome, Havana and elsewhere, my guide, source and inspiration in the formulation of my philosophy and thinking.

Arthur, two dozen or so years ago, invited me to join the Board of what was then called The Twentieth Century Fund, the leading liberal public policy think tank in the country. In all these years, he has been my wisest colleague on a board of very wise men and women, steadfast in his attendance regardless of his health, his other commitments or the weather. His trenchant comments at board meetings and meals were one of the reasons why that institution -- an American Prospect backer -- became the favorite of all those to which I have belonged.

The loss of his distinct liberal voice is one this nation can ill afford, particularly at this time when a deeply flawed, feckless, conservative administration has led our nation into a senseless, hopeless war, bifurcated our economy between the super-rich and the super-poor, neglected our environment and trampled on the very civil liberties that most distinguish us from our adversaries.

To the end, he was bravely writing, opining, and enjoying life, despite the multiple illnesses which he overcame with his usual good humor and solid personality. To the end, he lived a full life. It is not, however, the end: His writings, his sayings and the memories of his brilliant contributions to political and historical thought, will be remembered forever.

Arthur was a Unitarian -- noted, when he asked my brother Tom during the Kennedy White House Years, "If you Sorensens are Unitarians, what are all these quotations from the Bible doing in the speech drafts?" Unitarians generally do not believe in the hereafter, but whatever heavenly mansions exist, I have no doubt that Arthur is already ensconced in his office writing a new work, commissioned by the Almighty, entitled Reasonable Limits on Celestial Power.

Theodore C. Sorensen, Special Counsel to President Kennedy, was awarded the Schlesinger History Prize by Roosevelt University and the Roosevelt Institute in 2002.