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With grace and gusto

Democracy had no greater champion than Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. There was no better lunch partner, either.

March 03, 2007|Douglas Brinkley | Special to The Times

The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute was engaged in a discussion of how to properly honor the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was the early 1990s, and I, as the youngest board member and a historian trained by the dictates of fairness, suggested that it was essential to invite anti-Roosevelt historians to any symposium. "You've got to be kidding," fired back Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died earlier this week at 89. "Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams are dead. Let's leave them like that."

No backdoor-to-war theorists were allowed in Arthur's orbit. I stayed mute for the rest of the meeting. The next day, however, bothered by the put-down, I wrote Arthur a letter, explaining my logic. Soon, at my mailbox at Hofstra University (where I was teaching), an envelope with "Schlesinger" written on top appeared. I opened it only to find my letter returned. "Please Doug," he had written, "don't fret about my acid tongue. Always stick to your guns. And never worry about the consequences." Then in a postscript he added: "Throw this away. When we agree on so much, why record a minor disagreement? Let's have lunch."

Frank O'Hara may have written the greatest poem about New York lunches, but Arthur was the daily ritual's most stalwart practitioner. The Century Club on 43rd Street was his dining room of choice, chilled soup and red meat among the collected works of Emerson. That was Arthur's idea of nirvana. Sometimes, between courses, Arthur would pluck a book off the shelf with a look of rapture on his curious face. William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, E.L. Doctorow, Joan Didion -- these were just some of the hundreds of intellectuals whom Arthur enjoyed gossiping with over a meal. If an author wrote a good book, fact or fiction, Arthur would arrange to have lunch with you. Socializing over drinks, to Arthur, was the last way station of civilization. Having spent his World War II years in France with the Office of Strategic Services, he had adopted the Hemingway "A Moveable Feast" style of conviviality.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: A tribute to the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in the March 3 Calendar section stated that Schlesinger enjoyed dining at the Century Club on 43rd Street in New York. It should have said the Century Assn.

Grace came naturally to Arthur. There was no firmness to his handshake, just a gentle grasp while he cuffed you on the shoulder with the other free hand. His pace was always brisk, but he knew how to linger. He regularly wore his bow tie because Humphrey Bogart did, another small-sized man bigger than other stars. Life, to Arthur, in fact, was a delicate combination of workaholism and semi-sabbatical. He harbored a self-discipline so fierce that he kept a regular diary (that will be published by Penguin Press) but had a constitution hearty enough for a martini intake to make Dean Martin blanch.

If the nose is a conduit to memory, then Arthur never forgot the stink of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. There was nothing he despised more than right-wing bully-boys. With a few exceptions, like the old Nelson Rockefeller crowd, he found Republicans repugnant. But he didn't care for the hard left either. The whole Beat Generation and counterculture left him cold. Jack Kerouac and Abbie Hoffman were, to his mind, sloppy thinkers who didn't have our nation's best interest at heart. As his 1949 book, "The Vital Center," made clear, he found extremists of all kind to be flaming idiots.

The enlightened people, to Arthur, were liberals with a capital "L." He didn't just live in the shadow of FDR, he used the New Deal as his high-water mark for great activist government at work. Nobody knew more about the Squire of Hyde Park than Arthur, who wrote the magisterial three-volume "Age of Roosevelt." He essentially became the genealogist for all four FDR administrations. During the 1950s, he became personal friends with Adlai E. Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt, working with them on issues pertaining to civil rights and anti-communism. He felt strongly that, like historian George Bancroft (a distant relative), historians had an obligation to take part in the consciousness of their times. No intellectual helped John F. Kennedy win the White House more than Arthur, who in 1960 wrote "Kennedy or Nixon." His study of the Kennedy administration, "A Thousand Days," won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

Arthur, at all times, took Democratic politics seriously. He warmly embraced, for example, Al Gore and John F. Kerry. Just because a presidential nominee lost didn't mean Arthur abandoned him like yesterday's news. If you were a liberal and failed, that still earned you a billet on his honor roll. Whether it was promoting writers he admired or compiling a presidential ranking, Arthur was not opposed to stacking the deck in favor of liberals. His critics deemed it dishonest; he called it the practice of patriotism.

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