Q&A: ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER JR.

The Kennedy era revisited

November 14 1983
Q&A: ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER JR.

The Kennedy era revisited

November 14 1983

The Kennedy era revisited

Q&A: ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER JR.

Nov. 22 is the 20th anniversary of the assassination of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy; the 15th anniversary of the murder of his brother, former U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, was June 5. A number of television specials will mark those milestones. They include a six-hour CBS television miniseries, due to be aired in the 1981+-85 season, based on the book Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former adviser and friend to both Kennedy brothers. Maclean’s correspondent Daniel Burstein talked with Schlesinger in his office at City University in New York where he is the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities. Schlesinger reminisced about Robert Kennedy and the special relationship between the two brothers.

Maclean’s: How did the personalities of the two Kennedy brothers differ? Schlesinger: John Kennedy was essentially a man of reason, Robert Kennedy a man of passion. John objected to the inequities in our society because they seemed ‘unreasonable,’ Robert Kennedy felt it in the gut. John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a romantic, while Robert Kennedy was a romantic disguised as a realist. They were both very much aware of the discipline of the democratic process. They were not utopian leaders—they knew how to build coalitions and work with Congress. I do not see anyone in U.S. politics today who has their leadership qualities. Ted Kennedy is probably the closest to it— he is the executor of the legacy. But when I look at this not-too-exciting collection of candidates of the Democratic party, I wish we had someone with their vigor of concern and sense of direction to lead the country.

Maclean’s: Did Robert differ from John on substantive political questions, or was it primarily a difference of style? Schlesinger: They came along at different times. When John Kennedy became president in 1960, it was just the beginning of the return to activism after the drift of the Eisenhower years. He was only elected by 125,000 votes. He did not have a working majority in the House of Representatives. By the time Robert Kennedy was running for president, the country was in a much more passionate phase. By then, the real problem was not how to awaken the

country but how to control the desperate energies released by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and so on.

John was older, more detached, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan. Robert was seven years younger, the runt of the litter. He greatly admired his brother but he was more of an allouter by temperament.

In the conservative period of the 1950s he was much more conservative than John. But he had a remarkable capacity for growth and he took far more radical positions after his brother’s death.

While John was an opti-

mistic and buoyant man, Robert, especially toward the end of his life, was rather a pensive man. Pessimistic is perhaps too strong a word, but he had come to feel the terror of life.

Maclean’s: How different might history have been if Sirhan Sirhan had not killed Robert Kennedy? Would he have won the presidential nomination and the election in 1968?

Schlesinger: I think so. He would have defeated Hubert Humphrey for the

Democratic nomination and beaten Richard Nixon in the election. We would have gotten out of the Vietnam War in 1969 rather than in 1972. There would have been no Watergate. Much more would have been done about the state of our cities and about civil rights. The United States certainly would have been a different country. Now, when I read about what is happening in Central America, I cannot help thinking about the speeches Robert Kennedy

gave after he made his trip to Latin America in 1965. He pointed out that revolution there is inevitable and we cannot stop it. What we could do, he said, was try to work with it to make it peaceful and democratic. Those speeches make far more sense about Central America than the pronouncements of our government today. Maclean’s: A number of recent books about the Kennedys have suggested that there was no shortage of scandal in their lives. The stories we hear about Marilyn Monroe, about the CIA trying to assassinate Fidel

Castro and other dark deeds now associated with the Kennedys—do those stories have much credibility?

Schlesinger: It is a predictable process. Fifteen to 25 years after the death of a president, his reputation usually goes into a kind of eclipse, and the Kennedys are no different. The allegations about involvement in Marilyn Monroe’s death seem to be totally baseless. That part of the efforts to demystify the Kennedys that alleges they were sort of rigid, em-

battled, macho cold warriors seems to me to be nonsense. John Kennedy brought this country closer toward harmonious relations with the Soviet Union in 1963 than we have been since. The Kennedys consistently refused to submit to pressure from those around them to escalate conflicts. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, people wanted to send the air force in for a sneak attack. Robert Kennedy led the fight against that, and John Kennedy finally made the decision not to do it. Robert Kennedy had that great gift of always being able to ask the question that got to the root of the matter. He displayed it in the meetings of the executive committee dealing with the missile crisis. And he also displayed his moral concern about the United States putting itself in the position of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor—launching a sneak attack, especially against a small country. He thought that was ‘unacceptable. ’ He was the president’s brother— and naturally that helped in those meetings. But being a president’s brother does not solve everything— Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson had brothers. Jimmy Carter had a brother. Maclean’s: In your book you are quite insistent that neither of the Kennedy brothers ordered or co-operated with plans to assassinate Fidel Castro. Has anything you have learned more re-

cently changed your opinion? Schlesinger: The CIA attempts to assassinate Castro began under the Eisenhower administration and continued well into the Johnson administration. The argument is made that Kennedy as president must have known about the assassination plots, but that argument applies equally to Eisenhower and Johnson, and I do not think any of them knew of, or authorized, assassination. Do not forget that in the autumn of 1963 John Kennedy was working to regularize relations with Cuba. The president planned for [his Cuban expert and presidential adviser] Bill Atwood to fly to Cuba in November to see Castro. And yet, on the very day of John Kennedy’s assassination, a CIA agent was giving a poison pen to a potential assassin of Castro in Paris. I am persuaded that the CIA was operating on its own in those matters. As for Robert Kennedy, he was informed of the early assassination attempts as a fact of ancient historysomething that was over and done with—and yet they continued. Maclean’s: In Robert Kennedy's lifetime, his political opponents often used word like ‘ruthless' and ‘opportunistic’ to describe him. Does that image still linger in political circles? Schlesinger: It was a very real problem at the time. John Kennedy was a man of imperturbable courtesy. Robert Ken-

nedy was often brusque. He did not give a damn what people thought of him. His job as he saw it was to do things for his brother. He did not have the urbanity his brother had. He offended a lot of people at the time, even though when one got to know him he could be a man of great gentleness, sweetness—a very dear friend, a very affectionate man. Today in people’s memory, I think the hard edges have faded, and what people remember is his genuine passion for the poor and the powerless—his capacity to go into the slums and the Indian reservations and the hovels of Mississippi and make people there feel that he was one of them.

Maclean’s: To what degree do you think future historians will treat John and Robert together as part of the same phenomenon in American history? Schlesinger: I think they will be viewed together. Robert Kennedy’s life will very probably be seen as a continuation of John Kennedy’s—as his death was a kind of continuation of the tragedy of John Kennedy’s death. Both men were cut down in mid-career, so there is a tragic sense of incompleteness about their lives, their work and their contributions. In the long view of history, Robert Kennedy will be seen as a carrier of the legacy of John Kennedy, as both men carried forward the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. &l;£>