Dedicating His Life to Liberalism

Letters from historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. provide a window into a more civil Washington.

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In his lifetime, historian and liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote more than 20 books, countless magazine articles and more than 35,000 letters to figures from all walks of life, including presidents, lawmakers, movie stars and ordinary citizens. Two of the historian's sons, Andrew Schlesinger (who has published a history of Harvard) and Stephen Schlesinger (whose books include a history of the founding of the United Nations), have combed through and edited this correspondence to produce "The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr." The two Schlesinger sons recently sat down with their younger brother, Robert, a managing editor at U.S. News, to discuss liberalism, passion and the arc of their father's life. Excerpts:

The book is a picture of how Washington used to be more civil – even in strong disagreement. What should contemporary Washingtonians learn from it?

Stephen Schlesinger: Arthur says in one of his letters that he never wanted politics to interfere with his friendships. I think one of the things that he does prove in that book is that he remained friendly with conservatives like Bill Buckley and President George H.W. Bush –

Andrew Schlesinger: Henry Kissinger of course.

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SS: Joseph Alsop, people who normally in the course of politics would have been on the other side of most of his issues.

How does he change over the course of his correspondence?

SS: I remember when we were growing up he was famous for storming out of dinner parties having had angry arguments over politics with other people. He was fairly tempestuous as a youth. And also bordered on arrogant about his views. He couldn't believe that people would disagree with him.

AS: Twice in the letters … he says the great influence of [economist] Ken [Galbraith] on him was not to be furious, not to get into these fights but to be a little more ironic or humorous. Ken apparently influenced him to control himself and said, you'll be much more effective and much more influential if you restrain yourself.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

He wrote to a lot of presidents and national leaders. What would he be writing today?

SS: I can believe that if he were alive today he'd be telling Obama not to invade Syria, not to bomb Iran, to use diplomacy rather than try to find a military solution. That's on foreign policy. On domestic policy, he'd be a very big supporter of the health care act; he would be trying to get Obama to work to get a jobs program passed; all the kind of liberal programs that one identifies with FDR and JFK.

AS: And I'd also say that he would have – just like he was with Clinton – thought that Obama wasn't tough enough on the Republicans. He would have criticized Obama's – especially in the first four years – his so-called negotiating with the Republicans.

What surprised you about the letters?

AS: I was surprised when I, in the Kennedy Library, found that letter on [John Kennedy's book] "Profiles in Courage" – a four-page, single-spaced typewritten critique. It tells you something about both their characters. Kennedy said be tough, be ruthless in your criticism. And Arthur wasn't ruthless, but he was certainly rigorous. And then I think that this probably helped establish the successful relationship that they later had in the White House.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

SS: If you look at some of his other letters – with Galbraith when he disagreed over whether Carter should get a second term, he was very blunt with him. And Galbraith was his closest friend. So, when he felt strongly about an issue, he could be fairly, well I guess the word is strong in his language. Even though he knew that it wasn't going to cut off his friendships, it had to be a little upsetting to the people who got the letters.

For people who didn't know him personally, what will surprise readers?

AS: I think the expanse of his career and his friendships and his vision. From 1945 to 2005, the letters [show] he was in there, punching away and fighting all those years. I didn't understand that until we gathered these letters and then saw how they worked together. I didn't understand that this was like a religious commitment all his life to liberalism.