Jr. Schlesinger, Arthur M.

A Life in the 20th Century (cont’d)

VTR Date: September 6, 2001

Guest: Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Title: A Life In The 20th Century (continued)
VTR: 9/06/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though my most recent program with today’s guest was recorded just nine months ago, precisely as I had done three decades before, when he first joined me here, I began our program with recollections of first listening to him with rapt attention in the mid-1940s when as a fledgling teacher and graduate student I attended meetings of the American Historical Association where a brash, young, Ph.D.-less Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. was mischievously thumbing his nose at those older professionals who seemed determined to rake him over the historical coals, I thought because this whipper-snapper had just outstripped them all, winning his first Pulitzer Prize for the brilliant and provocative and best selling “Age of Jackson”.

Nor did he stop there, or anywhere. And in the long years since alternately shifting his sights strictly from the Muse Clio to the political persons whose contributions he would chronicle and/or serve … Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy … in all this time my guest has played a consistently key role at the vital center of American life, which he himself helped identify and now relates so tellingly in the wonderfully evocative first volume of his long-awaited memoir, “A Life In The 20th Century”, published by Houghton Miflin.

Well, that last discussion with today’s guest left all of us, of course, hungering for more. And I must say that no guest had ever … 55 years earlier, quite so presciently given me today’s opening cue. For in The New York Times Sunday Book Review of March 10th, 1946, Professor Schlesinger told his interviewer, Robert Van Gelder, and I quote …”what primarily interests me is the relationship in the sphere of politics between thought and action. The course that ideas take as they travel from the mind of a writer, a philosopher through the mind of the teacher, or perhaps the journalist, and make their way into the mind of the politician or the man of action and become powers modifying social conditions, laws on the statute books, accepted axioms for conduct and judgment”.

And so as I welcome Arthur Schlesinger once again, I want to ask him, when, in what he calls “A Life In The 20th Century” … in that lifetime of very close relationships with political persons, when he has been most satisfied with the way his own thoughts have been translated into political action. Fair question?

SCHLESINGER: Fair question. And, of course, there’s always a gap between what is theoretically desirable and what is politically possible. And democracy is a matter of persuasion, consent and compromise. And therefore no leaders in a democracy can translate ideas with … pure and perfect ideas … into pure and perfect reality. But I would say FDR and JFK both had the capacity to be idealistic in their ends and realistic in their means. And, in other words they understood that politics … the attainment of ideas is a matter of bargaining, persuasion and so on. And therefore you had to often settle for half a loaf or three-quarters of a loaf.

HEFFNER: You mean as the person who provided the ideas. Or the stimulus.

SCHLESINGER: Yeah. Well I think both Roosevelt and Kennedy were men of ideas anyway. At least they had men of a certain direction … you remember Henry Adams once said, “The President of the United States resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer and a port to seek.” And I think what distinguishes history making Presidents from non-history making Presidents is whether they have a course to steer. And this is just not liberal Presidents … Ronald Reagan, for example, had a course to steer and a port to seek. Many of us thought that port was somewhere back in the 19th century, but nonetheless he had the capacity to lead to … to lead people. Of course, crisis makes it much easier to be an effective President, as Washington facing the crisis of the founding of the Republic, setting all the precedents. Lincoln in the great Civil War. FDR in the first Depression and then the Second World War.

But two or three of the Presidents have had the capacity without crisis to impose their own sense of priorities on the populous. Andrew Jackson was one. Theodore Roosevelt was another. And Ronald Reagan was a third.

HEFFNER: Dwight Eisenhower?

SCHLESINGER: I don’t think he, he was really a President who is making the New Deal respectable, in the sense that unlike Goldwater and the others, Republican Presidents, he didn’t want to tear up the New Deal. But he made legitimate in a certain sense. But I think … I don’t think he was a man of strong ideas.

HEFFNER: You know I’ve been talking with James MacGregor Burns about these matters. Where do you put, as I asked him … where do you put Bill Clinton?

SCHLESINGER: Well Bill Clinton is an extraordinary and unlucky combination of attributes. He’s a brilliant man. He has an impressive technical command of the issue with which a President must deal. He has unlimited intellectual curiosity. He has an instinct for remedy. He listens as well as talks. He’s a great reader. And so on. Also, he has a certain natural eloquence, particularly with regard to the greatest domestic issue we face, which is the race issue. He’s never better than speaking ad lib in a Black church. And yet on the other hand, he has weak, self-indulgent personal habits. And he likes to … all Presidents like to be … hope to be loved. Particularly if they want to change things, they must accept the fact that a lot of people are going to be opposed to what you’re doing. I think Bill Clinton more than most Presidents wants to be liked.

HEFFNER: And as a consequence?

SCHLESINGER: As a consequence, he tries to please whatever audience he has. And whereas Roosevelt would say “you must love me for the enemies I have made.” Bill Clinton doesn’t want to make enemies. He makes them anyhow …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] I was just going to say …

SCHLESINGER: … makes them …

HEFFNER: I was just going to say, he certainly made them.

SCHLESINGER: No, I think, I think he … in other circumstances he might have been a very considerable President. As it is, I think he’s going to … in spite of the fact he’s the one elected President ever to be impeached, in spite of the fact his term ended with these ridiculous pardons, and so on … already people are beginning to forget that. The more we live in the new Administration, the better Bill Clinton is going to look.

HEFFNER: Arthur, going back to the … going back to the question of influence and this quotation that you offered … when you were a very, very young man … this is back in 1946 … how would you estimate your own influence upon the course of American life?

SCHLESINGER: I think if I had never existed American life would be much the same.

HEFFNER: Come on. Come on.

SCHLESINGER: But … no, no … I …. you know …

HEFFNER: Where have you been most influential? Where have you been influential, let’s put it that way.

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think I may have had some influence within the historical profession. But I don’t think I’ve had much influence outside “historiography”.

HEFFNER: You mean in … I remember coming to Washington and visiting with you in the White House. I had the sense that there was a Schlesinger influence. Don’t you?

SCHLESINGER: I don’t think with the Kennedy Administration there would have been much difference. I mean there are a couple of small things, perhaps our policy toward Italy, for some reason, was confided to me in the White House. And JFK was favorable to the so-called “opening to the Left” in Italy, that is the admission of the Socialist Parties to the Italian government. Eisenhower had vetoed … the Eisenhower Administration had vetoed it on the ground that the Socialists, the many Socialists were pro-Soviet … by this time … they had been … by this time they had long since ceased to be. And Kennedy felt that we should lift the veto, but the State Department was in favor of the Eisenhower veto, so I was given a kind of freedom to maneuver around the State Department. That kind of thing. But I think the Kennedy Administration would have been much the same. All I … you know … the influence of subordinates on a President of the United States is much over-rated. The President influences the subordinates much more than the subordinates influence a President. At least a President like Roosevelt or Kennedy or Clinton. I think they’re brighter … after all, they’re Presidents, and you’re not. So they must have some quality.

HEFFNER: But I remember well enough in reading your books on FDR and Kennedy that brain trusts and the like were important.

SCHLESINGER: They’re important in coming up with ideas and then coming up with words to make those ideas persuasive. But they … what they do is reinforce the attitudes of Presidents, I think. Now the present President may not be an exception to this …

HEFFNER: That’s not a compliment, is it?

SCHLESINGER: No. [Laughter] But I think … you know, on the whole a lot of our Presidents have been very bright people, and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. And as I say, entourages tend to say things that please a president, rather than things that displease him. They don’t argue with a president as much as they should.

HEFFNER: So, when young Schlesinger said, in 1946, what he said, “What primarily interests me is the relationship in the sphere of politics, between thought and action. The course that ideas take as they travel from the mind of a writer, philosopher through the mind of a teacher, or perhaps the journalist and make their way into the mind of the politician or the man of action and become powers modifying social conditions, laws on the statute books, accepted axioms for conduct and judgment.” That doesn’t exist?

SCHLESINGER: Oh, no it does exist, very much. But the … it’s an unconscious process. It’s not so much a process of mentorship. I mean Presidents don’t need tutors. After all, as I say … they’re Presidents and you’re not. And they must have some skills which you lack. And … but I think Presidents often seek ideas, they like … Presidents like Roosevelt and Kennedy and Clinton, for that matter, like discussion. They like to hear the clash of argument. They seek clarification of purposes. They seek how to translate ideas into action, given an obstinate Congress or vociferous interest groups of one sort or another in the population. So, intellectuals around them can be helpful in that regard.

But I don’t think … I think to recur to Henry Adams’ simile … they set the course and they have the port to seek. And the … look, you remember in Cains (CHECK SPELLING), in the conclusion of the general theory, says the interests are much over-rated as influence. Ideas are the dominant influence. And businessmen today are expressing the, the rage of some defunct scribbler half a century ago and so on. I think there is that passage … that’s my whole, my main interest in history, was the intellectual history of politics and the relation between ideas and action.

HEFFNER: You wrote somewhere and I don’t remember where it was … something about your father, the historian, indicating that he was perhaps the greater historian. What did you mean?

SCHLESINGER: Well I think he, in the first place, was a much more proficient technical historian.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

SCHLESINGER: His … he helped bring about … open up new fields for the profession … urban history, history of immigration, the family history, and so on.

HEFFNER: New viewpoints.

SCHLESINGER: New viewpoints … history of women, particularly. And the longest essay in the book New Viewpoints in American History was about the need for women’s history. And he was the great champion in his generation of social history. The history of the way people actually lived. So he had much more influence in the, in the … within the profession than I’ve had.

HEFFNER: Do you …

SCHLESINGER: He also was a great trainer of students. I mean his Ph.D’s populated American universities. He was a much better teacher than his son.

HEFFNER: Modesty, modesty, modesty.

SCHLESINGER: I was a better lecturer than my father. But I was not in his class as a mentor for graduate students.

HEFFNER: What do you regret about that, if anything.

SCHLESINGER: I don’t regret it. I mean, you know, you’re stuck with what lyour skills are. I’m fatalistic about that.

HEFFNER: The “Age of Jackson” what was ultimately the influence of that book?

SCHLESINGER: Well, you know, it’s had a vacillating influence. It’s had its ups and downs in history … the story of the stock market. At the moment it is rather “up” again. The recent Jacksonian literature, on the whole, takes the side of the “Age of Jackson”. That is the argument … two arguments … first that there are serious differences between the Jacksonians and the Whigs. And second that the Jackson derives as much from classic conflict as from sectional conflict. And, I think both of those propositions are more or less accepted today. Our friend Dick Hofstadter, for example, wrote a book about … wrote an essay about Jackson in which he said the Whigs and Democrats were all “expectant Capitalists”. And there wasn’t much difference between them. I think its … scholars today think that there was a considerable difference between them. And, as Peter Hale, the great Dutch historian, memorably said, “History is an argument without end.” And that’s why it’s such fun.

HEFFNER: When we spoke last time about “A Life in the 20th Century”, we talked about that and we talked about the interpretations of the coming of the Civil War …


HEFFNER: … have we set … could we possibly set down on an interpretation?
Or, as you say about “The Age of Jackson”, it’s fortunes rise and fall as the present group of historians interpret and and re-interpret the past. What about the Civil War?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think about the Civil War …

HEFFNER: You seem to be more definitive about that …


HEFFNER: … in the book.

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think … of course, all interpretations are the prepossessions of the present … being, setting, or interest, curiosity about the past. I think the Civil Rights Revolution … when you and I were young students there was the great view of James G. Randall and Avery Craven that it was a needless war, it was a repressive conflict, it was not fought about anything of great significance except a bunch of … demagogic abolitionists who were creating unnecessary sectional tensions and so on. The argument that I was making in the 1940s, along with others like Benny DeVoto, was that the war was fought about a terrible issue. That is the issue of slavery. And that slavery was the cause of the war. That’s what Lincoln had said. But somehow Charles A. Beard felt that this was really a conflict between Northern capitalism and Southern plantation ownership, and that slavery was not a major factor. Well, I think it was a consequence of the Civil Rights Revolution, which has put slavery back where it belongs, as one of the central problems of American development. I think now there are very few people who would take the position that slavery was not the basic cause of the Civil War.

HEFFNER: But what do you do with Beard’s interpretation?


HEFFNER: Not setting aside the moral question of slavery …

SCHLESINGER:. Well, he felt that slavery was a minor cause of the war. It’s hard to figure out why, looking back at it … I mean it’s … the consequence of the war was certainly the triumph of capitalism. But whether that was the cause of the war and whether that triumph of capitalism could not have taken place without a Civil War … I mean, obviously, just as globalization is irreversible, so “continentalization of capitalism” was irreversible in the 19th century.

HEFFNER: But, weren’t, weren’t we talking about two areas of conflict? Weren’t historians writing about two areas of conflict? And weren’t you saying, back when we were young men, “this ought damn well to have been a cause of conflict.”

SCHLESINGER: Slavery. Yeah. I was saying that.

HEFFNER: Okay. And why must we read out Beard’s economic interpreation?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I don’t think we read it out. And it may be it will come back in fashion again. But … and Beard was a great historian in a way. And a great stimulus to his historical argument.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “in a way”?

SCHLESINGER: Well, because I think few of his … I mean economic interpretation of the Constitution, which is a very reductive interpretation of the Constitution doesn’t, doesn’t represent what most historians feel about the Constitution.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s reductive unless you use the article ‘an” economic interpretation …

SCHLESINGER: … interpretation … yeah.

HEFFNER: But if you use the article and think of it only as an interpretation, is he as reductive?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think you get the impression from the book that the Constitution was not a democratiac document. A document created by great property holders in order to enrich themselves.



HEFFNER: That’s a distortion.

SCHLESINGER: And I don’t think … you know, the Constitution is now the great beacon of American democracy. And we trip over each other praising the wisdom and the restraint of the framers of the Constitution.

HEFFNER: If you were to separate out the first Ten Amendments, the Bill of Rights, would you say the same thing?

SCHLESINGER: No. But still the Bill of Rights is … adopted …


SCHLESINGER: …. very quickly after the Constitution. And the reason they weren’t put in the Constitution was that Hamilton and Madison, at least in the Federalist Papers … contended that all these rights were implicit. But, it’s very useful to have them spelled out. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You know I’m getting the signal … have gotten the signal, we just have a minute or so left … what do you make of this Adams/Jefferson “to-do” that’s been pushed so hard by the media?

SCHLESINGER: Well, I think again, history is an argument without end. I think Jefferson was always a very elegant figure, the second best writer we’ve had as President, next to Lincoln. Was a somewhat devious figure …

HEFFNER: Like Roosevelt?

SCHLESINGER: Like Roosevelt. Or, as Nixon said of Eisenhower … Eisenhower was very devious in the best sense of the word.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

SCHLESINGER: And I think Adams was due for upward revision. On the other hand McCullough doesn’t really explain or justify why Adams signed the Alien & Sedition Acts. And why people like Franklin … a very cool observer … thought he was a madman. He was an engaging figure. He and Franklin were the only Founding Fathers who had a sense of humor. I mean Jefferson never made a joke as far as the historical record shows. Adams made grim and sardonic jokes. But … so I think Adams is having a boom, but it will settle down after a while. Have you seen the article in the current “Harpers” …


SCHLESINGER: by the fellow who wrote the book about The Aurora, the Philadelphia newspaper …


SCHLESINGER: … Rosencranz, I think … Richard … at any rate … he engages in a polemic against Adams and explains why David McCullough, in his view, overrates him.

HEFFNER: I’ll have to read it. And Arthur, everyone has to read “A Life In The 20th Century” and I must say, as I told you before, as I said to Bob Caro, hurry up with the next volume, will you please?

SCHLESINGER: I certainly will do my best. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Thanks again for joining me, Arthur Schlesinger. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.