Water Man Spouts

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Schlesinger's Journal

June 9, 1968

"It is beyond belief, but it has happened – it has happened again. …

"It is all too much. That evening I went with so many others to Butler Aviation to await for the plan bearing the body from Los Angeles. It was all too familiar. The night was warm rather than cold; but the same sadness penetrated everything. In a way my friendship with Bobby had become closer than my friendship with Jack. How can one compare the two? JFK was eight and a half years older; Bobby would have been 43 in November, which was JFK’s age in May 1960. One thinks of (Governor) Paul Dever’s epigram: JFK, the first Irish Brahmin; RFK, the Irish Puritan. JFK, one sensed, was always a skeptic and an ironist; he had understood the complexity of things from birth. RFK began as a true believer; he acquired his sense of the complexity of things from hard experience. He remained a true believer to the end but at a far deeper level; he had long since shucked away from the external criteria and the received simplifications and got down as far as one can in politics to the human meaning of things. JFK attacked conditions because they were irrational, RFK because they seemed hateful. JFK was a man of celebration; Bobby was very bright and reflective, but he was a man of commitment. If JFK saw people living in squalor, it seemed to him totally unreasonable and awful, but he saw it all, as FDR would have done, from the outside. RFK had an astonishing capacity to identify himself with the casualties and victims of our society. When he went among them, these were his children, his scraps of food, his hovels. JFK was urbane, imperturbable, always in control, invulnerable, it seemed, to everything, except the murderer’s bullet. RFK was far more vulnerable. One wanted to protect him; one never felt that Jack needed protection. In Bobby’s case the contrast between the myth and the man could not have been greater. He was suposed to be hard, ruthless, unfeeling, unyielding, a grudge-bearer, a hater. In fact, he was an exceptionally gentle and considerate man, the most bluntly honest man I have ever encountered in politics, a profoundly idealistic man and extremely funny man. JFK had much better manners. RFK was often diffident and had no small talk. He would do much better at Resurrection City than at the Metropolitan Club. There was for me such a poignancy about RFK – all the greater now that they have killed him even before he had a chance to place his great gifts at the service of the nation in the presidency; Jack at least had two and a half years."

--Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Journals: 1952 - 2000; Penguin Press; 2007; pages 291-292

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr (1917 - 2007) was one of our era’s great liberal thinkers and historians. He won two Pulitzer Prize awards (The Age of Jackson, and A Thousand Days), and two national Book Awards (A Thousand Days, and Robert Kennedy & his times). In 1998, Arthur was awarded the National Humanities Award.

His two oldest sons took his private journals, from 1952 (when he worked for Adlai Stevenson, who he would come to strongly resent), through the 2000 election, and edited the 6,000 plus pages into a fascinating 858 page book. In it, the reader is treated to the private thoughts of a man who noted, for example, "Honors are sometimes things based on external consideration. I know better than the bestowers whether I deserve them or not" (page 851)

For those interested in political history – and perhaps especially political campaigns – this book is a great addition to his other works. "The Imperial Presidency," his 1974 look at the role of impeachment as the correct method for dealing with executive branch crimes and abuses of the power of office, focused primarily upon Richard Nixon, but surely applies to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney today.

Bush and Cheney are among the current politicians that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Viewed in highly unfavorable terms. His journals detail his utter contempt for Joseph Lieberman during the 2000 campaign. "Lieberman is not only sanctimonious but a hypocrite …. Lieberman is also president of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Republican wing of the Democratic party …." (page 847)

The final sentence in the book sums up Schlesinger’s opinion of George W. Bush: "Bush looked like a frightened ventriloquist’s dummy" (page 858)

It is one of two books that I picked up today; the other is Joseph Ellis’s "American Sphinx : The Character of Thomas Jefferson" (Vintage; 1998) The book notes that Jefferson has been claimed "by Southern seccessionists and Northern abolitionists, New Deal liberals and neo-conservatives." In 1993, Joyce Appleby noted that the "true Jefferson legacy is to be hostile to legacies." Thus, I am confident that this book will be worth reading after finishing the Journals.


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