Arthur Schlesinger spent 50 years in the orbit of Washington power. In a new collection of his private journals, a project started before his death on February 28, 2007, Schlesinger does nothing to assuage critics who believed he massaged history to put the best possible sheen on his beloved Kennedys.
His love for the Kennedys aside, Schlesinger could throw poison darts at liberals and conservatives alike, and his notes often reveal disagreements. Vice President Al Gore, not happy with the appointment of Madeleine Albright to be UN ambassador, said the best way for a man to get a job in the Clinton administration was to “get a sex-change operation.”
Then there is Henry Kissinger revealing to Schlesinger in 1977 that Donald Rumsfeld “was the rottenest person he had known in government.”
On Arizona senator John McCain in 1998: “McCain is a loose cannon . . . capable of bizarre behavior. Speaking at a Republican dinner, he told the following so-called joke: ‘Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because she is the illegitimate child of Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno.’ This plus his reputedly wayward sex life will sure destroy his evident presidential aspirations.”
About Albright, Schlesinger quotes diplomat and author Richard Gardner: “A third-rate woman, and not a nice one either.”
Schlesinger’s early impression of Lyndon Johnson: “More attractive, more subtle and more formidable than I expected.”
On LBJ at death: “He was not likeable; and he had, in addition, compulsive, even lunatic, strains that were enormously disturbing when he was in power.
On Jimmy Carter: “He really seems to me a total phoney. I don’t know whether it is worse to think he believes this junk or doesn’t. . . . Eight years of righteous homilies masking a punitive nature may be hard to take. I see him as the smiler with a knife.”
On the FDR children: “Franklin that wreck of a man of talent. . . . Jimmy, that charming cypher. . . . Elliot, old and stout, a meaningless, aging man. . . . my classmate John, a hopeless slob.”
On the just-deceased Washington Post publisher Phil Graham: “The most brilliant member of my generation . . . a man of extraordinary charm, vitality and insight, gay and witty in company, generous and wise in counsel, filled it would seem, with the life force.”
On Robert Kennedy: “He was supposed to be hard, ruthless, unfeeling, unyielding, a grudge-bearer, a hater. In fact he was an exceptionally gentle and considerate man, the most bluntly honest man I have ever encountered in politics.”
On Aristotle Onassis: “My reaction [to news that Jackie Kennedy was remarrying] was one of real horror . . . an insult to JFK and a betrayal of everything he stood for.”
On Kissinger: “Too intelligent a man to have been as naive [about Watergate] as he now pretends to have been. . . . Lunching with Henry seemed to me to be a waste of time since I did not know how seriously to take anything he said to me and he did not pay any attention to anything I said to him.”
On Martin Peretz, buyer of the New Republic: “Seemed to me an unprincipled egomaniac.”
On onetime Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork: “Bork is a chainsmoker, his belly swarms over his belt, and one feels that he may not be long for this world. Nor do I think he is terribly bright. . . . But he is likeable and we agreed at least on the indispensability of the dry martini.”
On his classmate and former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger: “In the 51 years I have known him, he has never once, in my view, been right about anything (a view he holds as strongly about me).”