by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Penguin, 928 pp., $40
This is a bad, vain, dull, repulsive book. Don't read it. I didn't.
Oops, have I committed the previous sentence to print? I've just broken the most sacred vow of book reviewers. I've confessed to not reading the book I'm reviewing. Jonathan Yardley will stalk me through the streets armed with his razor-sharp critique. The Library of Congress building will come crashing down upon my head. My career is over. But before I go to my doom, let me try to explain.
You see there was this fellow, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died early this year and is on his way to being forgotten but who, unfortunately, isn't quite there yet. Schlesinger spent some of his time being a Harvard historian and all of his time kissing the behinds of rich people, famous people, and people who were powerful in the Democratic party. He accomplished only one thing of note. (If you don't count his unfinished, multivolume history of the FDR administration and his A Thousand Days buncombe about JFK, and you certainly shouldn't.)
In 1945, Schlesinger went back in time to retro-behind-kiss Andrew Jackson. He wrote The Age of Jackson, glorifying the ignorant backwoods thug who perpetrated genocide upon the Indians, created the spoils system in Washington, and fathered that bastard political party of rum, rebellion, and Hillary Rodham. The rest of Schlesinger's life was spent engaged in such activities as being a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and in doing things even less important than that, if you can imagine any.
So this Schlesinger fellow kept what you and I would call a diary but what, when Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Harvard professor, special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, and winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (twice each), does it, is called Journals. He scribbles away from 1952 until 2000, producing some 6,000 pages, which his sons Andrew and Stephen--and bless them for it--have condensed. The resulting tome is no thicker than the average skull on the current generation of Kennedys. And honest, I meant to read it all. I did get through the entire first paragraph. Here's an excerpt from it concerning the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner of March 29, 1952:
I borrowed a black tie from Phil Graham. . . . Making our way to our table, we became entangled in one of the head table lines. In quick succession came the three nicest men in public life--Wilson Wyatt, Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman. Averell suggested that we go out for a drink afterward.
Ouch! Ow! Those are big names being dropped. Do not read Journals standing up in your stocking feet. Any given hundred words of Schlesinjournaling loses its grip on enough weighty monikers to break every toe.
But I limped on. I made it all the way to page 12 before I was stopped cold by this sentence about Adlai Stevenson: "He is the one man in politics today who strikes an authentically new and fresh note." And that note would be? Ah, the note that was passed to Adlai in every classroom of grade school, high school, and Princeton--the small, crumpled piece of paper upon which was written, "LOSER!!!"
Meanwhile, in the preceding 11 pages of type, our boy Artie has been subtly, carefully not quite taking all the credit for getting Adlai Stevenson the 1952 Democratic nomination. This raises several questions. First, Huh? What a load of baloney. Second, Why would anyone want any of the credit for that? And third, why doesn't Schlesinger just lie? It's his personal journal. If you can't fool yourself, who can you fool? Come on, Art, go for it. Say, "Without me Adlai Stevenson would have been nothing but a footnote to the history of wooly-headed liberalism!" It's not as if anybody's going to call you on it.
But Schlesinger dare not tell an outright lie. In one respect, Journals is a diary like younger sisters used to keep, with the key to the little lock on its pink vinyl cover conveniently "hidden" so that if big brother happens to read certain passages aloud to a particular handsome athlete . . .
The handsome athlete (well, sportsman, anyway) that Arthur had a crush on was JFK. Thus we see Kennedy in the middle of the 1960 Democratic primary campaign:
"Jack seemed tired, but was obviously in good spirits. His lack of pretense was refreshing; for example, he kept answering ringing phones himself."
He answers his own phone!
We see Kennedy on his yacht shooting at floating Coke bottles with "Prince Radziwill": "Jack is plainly an excellent shot . . . Then we drank Bloody Marys, swam from the boat and finally settled down for an excellent lunch. After lunch, cigars and conversation."
He spoke to me!