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!
And we see President Kennedy summoning some piece of speechwriting crap that he'd dumped on Arthur: "The next morning the president called to ask about the paragraph. I brought it to his bedroom about 9:30. He was eating his breakfast in bed. He had only his pajama pants on."
Yet Journals is so much more than gush. Its pages also crack open a hellgate to give us a peek at the eternally consuming fires of egotistic solipsism to which the soul of a liberal is forever condemned. Not even the undying love that Arthur Schlesinger felt for Kennedy money, power, and prestige could redeem poor Art from the perdition that awaits the bien pensant. His is the sin of pride, such that produces the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society. It manifests itself in the deeds of the mighty. Or in the case of Arthur Schlesinger, it manifests itself in mighty bad taste. This, this, is his private reaction when his friend, his mentor, his beau ideal is murdered:
I heard the terrible news as I was sipping cocktails with Kay Graham, Ken Galbraith and the editors of Newsweek. Kay and I had flown in from Washington; we were there to discuss the future of the back of Newsweek's book. A man entered in his shirtsleeves and said, a little tentatively . . .
A man in his shirtsleeves--in the presence of Kay Graham, Ken Galbraith, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.!
Let us skim forward to June 1968, and see if Art is better able to keep his composure when Robert Kennedy is killed:
It is beyond belief, but it has happened--it has happened again.
On Tuesday, June 4, I went to Chicago for a conference on Vietnam sponsored by the Adlai Stevenson Institute. Saul Bellow and I had met at the airport [blah blah blah] . . . He had suggested that I come over to his apartment Tuesday evening [blah blah blah] . . . I took Frances FitzGerald over there [blah blah blah] . . . Then Dick Wade, who was there, dropped Frankie at the Center for Continuing Education [blah blah blah-blah-blah].
We are fully 140 words into the journal entry before we get to "Kennedy's been shot." And even here, in his brief quotation of a phone call from Dick Wade, Schlesinger manages to drop another name, "Steve Smith too, I guess."
Okay, Art, that's two wrong. But you're still eligible for a posthumous consolation prize--free shredding of all remaindered copies of Journals. Just turn to the 1969 chapter and tell us your deep feelings when you learned about the political assassination (albeit self-inflicted) of the third Kennedy brother:
The last few days were, of course, shadowed by the distressing news about Ted Kennedy. We heard about it first on the yacht on Sunday afternoon and learned more details when we reached Paris. On Wednesday night in New York, I called Jimmy Wechsler, Joe Rauh, Ken Galbraith and others and found general gloom. On Thursday I sat after lunch with Scotty Reston and Tom Wicker at the Century. They were both sympathetic . . .
And I feel sorry for you, too, Arthur.
Naturally we cannot expect a man with credentials such as Arthur's to be merely a jerk; he's an idiot, too. The quickest riffle through Journals is enough to prove it. Said Arthur, after a 10-day visit to the USSR in 1982: "I fear that those who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse are kidding themselves." It just so happens that I was in the USSR myself for about 10 days in 1982. I was an ignorant, neophyte foreign correspondent on my first overseas assignment. But I did notice that the Soviet Union was on the verge of economic and social collapse.
Schlesinger's ability to make people look like cretins is by no means limited to himself. He visits President Truman and emerges from the Oval Office with this unlikely quote from the former haberdasher: "The professional politician, he said, is the straightest-shooting man in the country. [Alert readers note foretokening of JFK on the yacht.] I don't mean the city machine type; but the man who makes a career of elective politics. The biggest crooks in the country are the businessmen."
Even Jack Kennedy doesn't escape. JFK visited Dwight D. Eisenhower in California in 1962, and when Kennedy got back he (according to Schlesinger) told Schlesinger, "You know what he said to me? We were talking about Laos. Eisenhower said, 'A State Department man told me--and it was odd coming from him--that Laos is a nation of homosexuals.'" Schlesinger then goes on to say, "The President repeated the phrase I have italicized with a kind of wonder." I have parsed and parsed this passage, and for the life of me I can't figure out who comes off as the biggest idiot. Bigoted Ike? Hopelessly hetero naïf JFK? A certain striped-pants cookie-pusher? Or long-bow-pulling Arthur?
Then there is a splendidly stupid entry about a get-together with Mick Jagger that makes one wonder if Schlesinger's whole life wasn't spent on some moron preserve or nincompoop reservation:
We . . . made our way to the west side for a party at Mick Jagger's. The whole thing was rather mysterious--especially why we were asked. But Jerry Hall . . . is an amiable, very pretty, tallish Texan [blah blah blah]. We expected a packed house with a lot of drinking, cocaine, noise, etc. Instead, it was a party of only moderate size and, so far as we could see (we left shortly before 1 A.M.), entirely seemly. Most people were young, except for Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, Jean Stein and Ahmet Ertegun (who could not get over the fact that we were there--actually we met Mick Jagger first at his house). . . . [blah blah blah] Mick Jagger appeared from some upstairs retreat and sat down and talked for half an hour or so, mostly about communism, war, the threat of Cap Weinberger and so on. He is alert, funny, intelligent (Alexandra told me later he had attended LSE [the London School of Economics]--can this be so?) . . . [blah blah blah] But I still could not understand why we were there.
Ditto for reading this book.
In fact, ditto for writing this review. I'd like to escape from further comment on Journals. I'm looking for a way out of this article. I consult the notes that I took as I flipped through the opus. "I cannot bear to read it, partly because of the vulgarity of the diction, partly because of the nakedness of the self-exposure, partly because of the frustration over not being able to review it. I cannot recall any political autobiography in American history which has represented quite such an orgy in unconscious self-revelation," I wrote.
Except I didn't write that. I figure, as long as I've admitted not reading this book, I might as well go the whole hog and be a plagiarist, too. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote that. He thought he was writing about Six Crises by Richard Nixon. But as usual, Arthur was wrong.
P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.