With the release of interview tapes archived for decades and now known to the world, Jackie Kennedy’s voice – tender, wraithlike and occasionally wry – is with us once again.
But as the former first lady grabs yet another round of headlines, I’ve been thinking about the other voice on those much-publicized tapes – the one belonging to her interviewer, the late historian and former JFK aide, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
I’d heard his patrician baritone most memorably back in 1988, during a phone interview to promote an upcoming lecture and his 1986 book, “The Cycles of American History.” An ardent liberal, Mr. Schlesinger had been watching the 1988 presidential primaries with interest, predicting that the national mood was ripe for a resurgence of progressive politics.
The political stars, alas, didn’t align for Schlesinger’s favored candidate, Michael Dukakis, and President George H.W. Bush took office in 1989. That left me wondering how much of Schlesinger’s view of the presidential race had been informed by scholarship – and how much of his analysis had been shaped by wishful thinking.
As a historian of the Kennedy years and a Democratic loyalist, Schlesinger made no pretense of academic objectivity. “A Thousand Days,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of the Kennedy years, unfolds with a large historical sweep that occasionally suggests a kind of magisterial detachment. But throughout the narrative, Schlesinger’s deep affection for the president he served is never far from the surface.
In this way, “A Thousand Days” now seems like an old-fashioned oddity – a White House memoir by a staffer who actually liked his boss and his co-workers. In today’s political culture, in which White House veterans typically pen tell-alls to settle scores and dish the dirt, Schlesinger’s discreet and courtly sensibility reads like a charming anachronism.
As a sagging economy and disillusionment with Washington tilts national politics to the right, Schlesinger’s unapologetic defense of liberal values might also seem dated to some.
But in “The Cycles of American History,” Schlesinger, who died in 2007, seemed to anticipate the rise of tea party activists now arguing for a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers. He foresaw the need, it seems, to defend those principles, too.
Schlesinger noted that even the Founders embraced the idea of government as a positive agent of change rather than an obstacle to progress. Alexander Hamilton, wrote Schlesinger, believed that “the national government was the grand instrument by which to transform a pastoral economy into a booming industrial nation.” Schlesinger also pointed out that Thomas Jefferson championed a federally funded system of state canals and roads long before any European government adopted such a plan.
“It would still appear that affirmative government offers the best chance in this horrid world of strengthening our democracy, preserving our institutions and enlarging the liberties of our people,” Schlesinger concluded.
Nearly half a decade after his death, as skepticism about government deepens, Schlesinger’s views seem more relevant than ever. Which is why, as the opinions of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis get a fresh forum, we should revisit what her interviewer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., had to say, too.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”