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Big-book man

Journals 1952-2000 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Penguin Press: 912 pp., $40

October 07, 2007|Douglas Brinkley | Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

When President Bill Clinton was undergoing his impeachment woes, true-blue allies were in short supply. As Republicans gleefully rallied around the Starr Report, many Democrats went into duck-and-cover mode. Denouncing impeachment as GOP overreach, they nevertheless admitted that Clinton's behavior was wrong. Not, however, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. With his able co-conspirator historians Sean Wilentz and C. Vann Woodward, Schlesinger organized Historians in Defense of the Constitution. Signed by more than 400 historians, the galvanic circular issued by Schlesinger and company claimed that Starr had lowered the impeachment bar into the rat-infested gutter.

Columnists such as William Safire and David Broder mocked the Schlesinger-Wilentz-Woodward statement as a pro-Democratic stunt, to be expected, they said, from the historian who put the capital C in John F. Kennedy's Camelot. And there was certainly some truth in their offhanded dismissal. But in "Journals: 1952-2000," Schlesinger, who died earlier this year, explains that he never thought Clinton had lied in the first place. "I wonder whether there is not some ambiguity in the term 'sexual relations,' " Schlesinger mused in an Aug. 5, 1998 entry. "Oral sex can leave a woman's virginity intact; penetration is a completed sexual relationship. Norman Mailer says that there is an old Arkansas saying: 'It ain't a sin if you don't stick it in.' Newt Gingrich told a mistress that he preferred a blowjob because he could truthfully say that he had not slept with her. The President may well mean one thing by 'sexual relations'; the special prosecutor another."

Throughout "Journals" -- a deeply revelatory and no-holds-barred tour de force tome -- Schlesinger champions his friends and slays his enemies. Edited by his sons Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger (both distinguished scholars in their own right), the wily éminence grise shines radiantly through all of these pages, with occasional plunges into the taboo zone. Long rumored to be a treasure trove of high élan gossip, "Journals," as published, equals just one-sixth of the full Schlesinger diary. It doesn't disappoint. One hopes all of Schlesinger's logs will be published someday, but "Journals" is a fine baptism-by-fire for the general reader. Selections are included from a wide-angled scope of 48 years; mysteriously, however, 1999 is not represented.

Anybody who ever lunched with Schlesinger in Georgetown or Manhattan will surely be flipping to the index, many in panicked fashion, to see if their loose banter over soup on some Tuesday or Thursday has now been enshrined for the ages in print. "Inevitably, the candor of some of these reflections may strike friends and acquaintances as indiscreet," Schlesinger's sons write in an instructive introduction. "That is unavoidable in such annals."

The uncensored tone of "Journals" is that of the honest, Harvard-educated man of letters trying to make sense of the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Although Schlesinger clearly models himself after Henry Adams, there is a heavy touch of Thomas Wolfe in these musings, an earnest intellectual battling against and for the currency of political power and high-society access as he simultaneously refuses to abandon his rock-ribbed liberal convictions. The juggling act was harder than his friends supposed. Winning book awards, we're reminded in "Journals," is not necessarily a lucrative proposition. As late as 1987, in fact, when Schlesinger was a household name, he writes of struggling to survive in the fast-buck Manhattan social swirl where he was often the toast of the town, lamenting that he was "perennially broke" and unable to "possess a savings account."

Through hard work, however, Schlesinger always avoided the debtor's prison, writing such classics as "A Life in the 20th Century" well into his 80s. Astonishingly, Schlesinger consistently delivered the big book, decade after decade, always determined to be part of the consciousness of his times. And he relished influencing presidential elections, CIA directives and White House policy initiatives. He also made sport of spinning the enduring legacies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Robert Kennedy and, to a lesser degree, Bill and Hillary Clinton. (On the other hand, his disdain for Jimmy Carter knew no bounds.) Throughout Schlesinger's storied career his proximity to the greatest Democratic politicians of his lifetime allowed him to have unparalleled insights into their multifaceted character traits.

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