JFK, LBJ, Schlesinger, Caro, and the 'Argument Without End'

Arthur Schlesinger always appreciated that historiography involves revisiting, revising, reinterpreting, and re-arguing major events.

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Several years ago I was at a cocktail party at my parents' New York City apartment, chatting with the historian Robert Caro. I noticed that smoke seemed to be emanating from his person and said, "I'm not sure how to put this, Bob, but, umm, are you on fire?" He pulled open his jacket and we were both startled to find that its lining was smoldering and then alight. Apparently his jacket had dangled over a candle when he was leaning over a table and it caught.

I thought of this incident over the weekend when reading a Politico article about The Passage of Power, the latest installment in Caro's multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson. "Historians and partisans are being challenged to decide which side they are on," Jonathan Martin and John F. Harris write. "Caro's book, 'Passage of Power' repeatedly and bluntly challenges the version of 1960s political history framed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the eminent historian and unabashed Kennedy loyalist who died in 2007 and age 89."

[Read Robert Schlesinger's interview with Caroline Kennedy about the Jackie Kennedy tapes.]

Lunching with family (including two important mothers: my own and my sons') Sunday, I joked that Caro obviously hadn't gotten over the time he'd been set on fire at one of Dad's parties. (I can't resist a bad pun: The event was obviously seared into his memory, I added.) We all had a good laugh because we knew what my father would have made of the whole thing. He'd have enjoyed the argument. As the Politico piece notes, Dad always enjoyed Dutch historian Pieter Geyl's aphorism that "history is an argument without end." As my brother Stephen told Politico, he would not take offense to another historian engaging in that argument: "As long as he used evidence and reason, he wouldn't take it personally."

Indeed, the Caro kerfuffle brought to mind something else. Appearing at the Roosevelt Reading Festival at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in 2008 I had the pleasure to meet the conservative writer Amity Shlaes. I was promoting White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters and she The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, which blames FDR's New Deal for extending the Great Depression. She recounted that Dad had been a help on the project, talking with her about it several times and suggesting some papers which might be helpful for her to delve into. My father always proudly described himself as an unrepentant, unreconstructed New Dealer, and would certainly have disagreed with Shlaes's thesis ("He clearly knew that from time to time I uncovered evidence that might contradict his various theses and enjoyed the spirit of endeavor," she recalls) but also always appreciated that historiography involves revisiting, revising, reinterpreting, and re-arguing major events.

And the ability to disagree without necessarily being disagreeable, and a willingness to do so, is a skill of which lot of us in Washington—both those in politics and those covering it—could stand to be reminded.

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