Arthur at Camelot

Before sitting down with this hefty doorstopper of a diary, first ask yourself whether you agree — or can imagine yourself agreeing — with the entry Arthur Schlesinger, Jr made on 27 March 1950: ‘I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.’
If you do, or can, then you will enjoy this book, for it largely consists of a half-century’s worth of gossip, most of it obtained by sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen over drinks. I had my doubts about it, however, and in fact nearly gave up after the first 50 pages, not least because the diary entries, though edited by Schlesinger’s sons, are not annotated. As a result, I was never absolutely sure which Democratic convention we were talking about, and whose political career was at stake. Not all of the characters, though no doubt well-known to Schlesinger’s generation, are familiar any more either, and there was an air of annoying self-satisfaction about the whole over-educated lot of them.

Nevertheless, it also quickly became clear that the stories Schlesinger tells do form a kind of pre-history of the present, and for that reason alone his diaries eventually drew me in. Schlesinger was an arche- typal public intellectual: a historian, speechwriter, sometime journalist and, above all, one of the minor figures of the Kennedy ascendancy. He was one of the ‘professors’ in the JFK White House, providing general advice and a bit of speechwriting to the President. He was even closer to Robert Kennedy, about whom he eventually wrote the definitive biography. After both brothers were murdered, he stayed close to Jackie, Teddy, Ethel and the rest of the extended Kennedy friends and family, in whose orbit he remained for the rest of his life.

But his record of their doings isn’t mere namedropping. More importantly, Schlesinger manages to convey the excitement and optimism that they once exuded. In recent years, debunking the Kennedys has become more fashionable than praising them; Teddy Kennedy, now gravely ill, has long felt like a throwback to the distant past. But in 1961, Kennedy’s White House rocked with parties. At one, Schlesinger records, there were ‘about 80 guests, Lester Lanin’s band, and we stayed until nearly three in the morning,’ something hard to imagine in staid, teetotaling, post-9/11 Washington. The next morning, Schlesinger and a colleague go to meet some visiting Europeans, and all agree that ‘the discussion is recommencing,’ in Washington, that things are getting interesting again; the following few days Schlesinger spends working on a plot to overthrow Castro. Lunchtime martinis, champagne at dinner, a sense of endless possibility, a feeling of enormous confidence and everybody is under 50. Sounds like fun, no?

Take away the martinis, swap Lester Lanin’s band for the Black Eyed Peas, and it also sounds a lot like the Washington many hope Barack and Michelle Obama will now recreate. There is the same whiff of racial progress in the air, the same appeal to young people, the same optimism — despite the worst economic crisis in a generation — and the same sense that ‘things will change’. Schlesinger’s diaries show how potent that combination of feelings once was, and thus provides an explanation by analogy for the mood of the present.

He also shows what the aftermath could look like. The latter part of the book, post-Kennedy assassinations, is significantly gloomier. Schlesinger describes the paranoid madness of LBJ, the unpleasantness of Watergate, the disappointment of Jimmy Carter — whom he loathes — and his almost unbearable nostalgia for the glamour of the Kennedys. One wonders whether Obama’s advisors be writing memoirs like this 50 years from now.

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