Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007)

Author, historian, teacher, journalist, New Deal Democrat, speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson, advisor to John F. Kennedy--Arthur Schlesinger was, above all, always the perfect gentleman. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone clearly enjoyed his company. (Even his political "enemies," quick to condemn his opinions, were hard-pressed to defame his personality.)

My comments aren't simply the commendatory cliches typical of a day-after eulogy. I first met Schlesinger in 1996--the year I was a Clinton delegate to the Democratic convention--and my off-and-on acquaintance continued until a little over a year ago, when I ran into him at a cocktail reception. His unflagging energy was enviable; he seemed to be at every celebration, every anniversary, every awards ceremony, no matter the occasion; a colleague remarked that Arthur would show up for the opening of an envelope.

Yet, if there is one word that comes immediately to mind when I think of him, it is approachable. He was surprisingly soft-spoken, self-deprecating, and kind. It was with some surprise that I read in the Washington Post this morning that he recalled his own youthful temper, "I was indignant, hot-tempered, brutal in my style . . . [John Kenneth Galbraith] taught me that irony is more effective than indignation." When he disagreed with you, he would kill you with kindness.

His last book, War and the Imperial Presidency, was a strident condemnation of the Bush administration and its policies. It is not the book for which he will be remembered; it is a prophetic screed-of-the-moment containing gentle reminders of the sort we greatly need right now. He chided Bush and Cheney for creating an "the American Presidency [that] has come to see itself in messianic terms as the appointed savior of a world whose unpredictable dangers call for rapid and incessant deployment of men, arms, and decisions behind a wall of secrecy," but he optimistically felt that this, too, shall pass, that history "supplies an antidote to every generation's illusion that its own problems are uniquely oppressive."

Update: Josh Marshall recalls his encounter with Schlesinger at (naturally) an awards ceremony, where he tried to explain the concept of a blog. That's an attempt at a conversation I would have loved to have heard. (The only correspondence I have from him, from 2005, was written on a manual typewriter.) One of the things I noted in my brief Amazon review of War and the Imperial Presidency was that Schlesinger was wary of the "electronic town hall" (his phrase) and he "judged the Internet secondhand by its excesses (on both right and left) rather than by intimate knowledge of the online political community."