Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who chronicled the Kennedy era, at 89
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who chronicled the history of American liberalism in award-winning books and contributed to it as a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, died last night in Manhattan. He was 89.
The cause was a heart attack, Dr. Schlesinger's son Stephen told the Associated Press. He died at New York Downtown Hospital after being stricken in a restaurant.
"The historical mind can be analytical, or it can be romantic," Dr. Schlesinger wrote in "A Thousand Days," his Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning 1965 account of the Kennedy presidency. "The best historians are both."
He could have been describing his own approach to the field. In such books as "The Age of Jackson" (1945), which also won a Pulitzer, the three volumes of "The Age of Roosevelt," "The Crisis of the Old Order" (1957), "The Coming of the New Deal" (1958), and "The Politics of Upheaval" (1960), and the National Book Award-winning "Robert F. Kennedy and His Times" (1978), Dr. Schlesinger offered a stirring vision of liberalism on the march. While exhaustively researched and finely nuanced, these books were never less than ideologically vigorous and very much in the heroic mode.
"I suppose I've always been more interested in change and reform than the status quo," he said in a 1997 Globe interview. "That reflects my own political beliefs."
From "The Age of Jackson" to "The Age of Roosevelt" to the two Kennedy biographies (which could as easily have been called "The Age of the Kennedys"), Dr. Schlesinger can be seen to have written a gapped history of 150 years of "triumphant liberalism," a term one reviewer used for the vision propounded in the Jackson volume.
In that book, Jacksonian democracy is presented as an implicit forerunner of the FDR coalition. The Roosevelt volumes constituted a ringing defense of the New Deal. And the Kennedy books so glowingly limned the two Kennedy brothers -- "Never had girls seemed so pretty, tunes so melodious, an evening so blithe and unconstrained" was how Dr. Schlesinger described a White House social function two months into the new administration -- that some critics accused him of having been co-opted by his proximity to power during the New Frontier and exchanging the profession of historian for that of apologist.
"I always combined academic life with what academics call 'the real world,' " he said in the 1997 interview, replying to that accusation. "Being a concerned citizen does not prevent one from being a good historian."
Dr. Schlesinger came by his profession as by birthright. His mother, Elizabeth (Bancroft) Schlesinger, was a distant relation of the 19th-century American historian George Bancroft. His father, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, was himself a distinguished American historian who taught for many years at Harvard.
The senior Schlesinger was teaching at Ohio State University when Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger (he later changed his name in honor of his father) was born on Oct. 15, 1917, in Columbus, Ohio. "Young Arthur," as Mr. Schlesinger was known, grew up in Columbus, Iowa City (where his father taught at the University of Iowa), and Cambridge.
After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, the intellectually precocious Schlesinger entered Harvard at 16. (A classmate was Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the older brother of the future president.) Majoring in history and literature, he studied under Perry Miller and F. O. Matthiessen and graduated summa cum laude in 1938. His senior honors thesis became his first book, "Orestes A. Brownson (1939), a study of the 19th-century reformer and man of letters.
Dr. Schlesinger spent a year at Cambridge University as a Henry Fellow, then returned to Harvard as a member of its prestigious Society of Fellows. During World War II, he served in the Office of War Information and in the Office of Strategic Services. After the war, he spent a year working in Washington as a freelance writer before joining the Harvard history faculty in 1946 as an associate professor. He became a full professor in 1954.
In 1947, Dr. Schlesinger helped found Americans for Democratic Action, which would long remain the preeminent liberal political organization. His 1949 essay collection, "The Vital Center," did more than any other single book to define the debate over whether post-New Deal liberalism would be aligned with those sympathetic toward Soviet Communism or with its antagonists. He served the Truman administration as a consultant to the Economic Cooperation Administration, which oversaw the Marshall Plan, and to the Mutual Security Administration.
Dr. Schlesinger wrote speeches for the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, in 1952 and 1956 . Like many liberal Democrats, he had divided loyalties at the beginning of 1960: "nostalgically for Stevenson, ideologically for [Hubert H.] Humphrey, and realistically for Kennedy." Realism won out, and Dr. Schlesinger became a key Kennedy backer.
His efforts were rewarded with a position on the White House staff as presidential special assistant. "It was an invitation no historian could resist," Dr. Schlesinger explained in 1997, "to see how decisions were made."
His duties were vaguely defined and various. He served as the White House's emissary to intellectuals and liberal groups and as a liaison with Stevenson, Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations. He also provided expertise on cultural matters and, as an adviser on Latin America, was one of the few to oppose the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was also, in the grateful description of White House special counsel Theodore Sorensen, "a lightning rod to attract Republican attacks away from the rest of us."
"Working for him was the most exhilarating experience," Dr. Schlesinger said in 1997 of serving Kennedy. That exhilaration took many forms. As the columnist Mary McGrory wrote in 1964, "He partook with great relish in the life of the New Frontier." With his rakish smile and trademark bow tie, Dr. Schlesinger was something of a professorial bon vivant: reviewing movies for Show magazine (and, later, Vogue, Saturday Review, and American Heritage), famously going fully clothed into the swimming pool at Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's Hickory Hill estate, even engaging in a self-described "mock competition" with him for the attention of Marilyn Monroe at a birthday celebration for the president.
Dr. Schlesinger left the White House early in 1964 to begin work on "A Thousand Days." Having given up his Harvard appointment, he became a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and, in 1966, Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at the City University of New York, a position he held until assuming emeritus status in 1995.
He became a leading critic of the Vietnam War and examined the roots of US involvement in "The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966" (1966). In 1968, Dr. Schlesinger worked in Kennedy's presidential campaign. His friend's death deeply colored his next book, an uncharacteristically pessimistic essay collection, "The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Violence in America" (1969).
Increasingly troubled by the state of the union, Dr. Schlesinger published "The Imperial Presidency" (1973), a comprehensive history of the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the executive branch of government. Many critics noted its relative scanting of the activities of the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations and heavy attention to those of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Dr. Schlesinger dismissed any imputation of partisanship, though he reacted with delight when it was revealed that his name appeared on the Nixon White House's "enemies list." When Nixon lived in New York between 1979 and 1981, his townhouse shared a garden wall with that of Dr. Schlesinger, who wryly noted that when he'd lived in Cambridge he'd shared a garden wall with the former president's ideological opposite, the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
In 1970, Dr. Schlesinger and his wife, Marian (Cannon) Schlesinger, divorced. A year later he married Alexandra Emmet.
Dr. Schlesinger published a volume of memoirs, "A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950," in 2000.
The recipient of more than two dozen honorary degrees, Dr. Schlesinger was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (serving as president, 1981-84, and chancellor, 1984-87), American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Society of American Historians (serving as president, 1989-92), American Philosophical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Russian Academy of Sciences, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (serving as cochairman from 1983 to the present ), American Civil Liberties Union, Council on Foreign Relations, Americans for Democratic Action (serving as national chairman, 1952-54), Century Association, and Phi Beta Kappa.
Dr. Schlesinger had six children -- four from his first marriage and two from his second.