BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Dr. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., author of "The Disuniting of
America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society," this is the third time this
book's come out. How come?
MR. ARTHUR SCHLESINGER Jr., AUTHOR, "THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA:" It
is the third time. It was originally published--Whittle publishers,
now extinct, did it in a kind of special edition which was distributed
free. And then W.W. Norton took it up, republished it in a trade
edition. And time has passed, and the time has come to make some new
points and update the rest, and hence the third version.
LAMB: What's new in this one?
MR. SCHLESINGER: What's new in this one? Well, partly an updating
of--of matters, partly some new issues have--have emerged, which I can
tell you about, and partly because the publisher thought it'd be a
good idea to have what he calls `the Schlesinger syllabus' at the end,
a baker's dozen of books which all Americans ought to read to
understand the country in which they live.
LAMB: Let's talk about that. A baker's dozen--the dozen books that
you've selected; which d--which one of the--all those is the most
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, it's hard to s--say which is the most
important; it's like s--asking which is--which is the most important
of your children, I suppose. But I'm--if pressed, one might argue
that the most perceptive book written about America is still
Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." It's an extraordinary thing
that--of course, C-SPAN has al--done fine work in reminding people of
sig--Tocqueville's significant--significance. The fact that a book
written 150 years ago should still illuminate the American character
and the American experience is very remarkable.
LAMB: You have Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark
Twain, James Bryce, William James, Henry Adams. Henry Adams pops up
in a lot of the readings that I've done for this show as--"The
Education of Henry Adams" as--as being one of the most important books
ever written. Why is it?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, it's a brilliant book. I mean, he's a
brilliant historian, because he had a g--w--some extraordinary
insights. One of the--his insights was the in--increase in the
velocity of history, the rate of change. He talked about--talks in,
"The Education" about the law of acceleration. And we can see this--I
mean, the movement every--surrounds us all the time. I think
He--Henry Adams the--was born just as we were reaching the end of one
great structural change in our society, the shift from a farm-based to
a factory-based economy. He saw that.
But he anticipated, not in precise terms but in the general sense,
this shift we are now experiencing, which is a shift from a
factory-based economy to a computer-based economy. He did not
talk--know about the computer, but he knew that something--the law of
acceleration was hurtling us into a future which--where things would
be very different.
LAMB: One of your baker's dozen is Gunnar Myrdal's "An American
Dilemma," 1944, and you write a lot about that in the book itself.
How did you marry the two, putting it on your list and also referring
to it in the book itself?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, Myrdal's book--Myrdal was a Swedish economist
who was brought to the U--US to study the--the race problem. The--the
idea of--a foundation brought him; the idea was that he could bring a
certain detachment and have a certain perspective which might be
useful for Americans. And it's an extraordinary book in the--both in
the--the depiction of conditions half a century ago. And if you read
th--"An American Dilemma," you cannot--it's hard to deny that great
changes, great improvements have taken place. We haven't gone far
enough, but there have been--there's extraordinary changes in American
But he also proposed an argument as to how these changes might
be--come about. And he identified what he called the American creed,
and he felt that the American creed put certain ideals in the minds of
Americans, ideals which were imperfectly fulfilled, often betrayed, by
white America, but that in the longer run, th--this struggle for
America's soul would result in an--in an increasing fulfillment of
those ideals, and that those ide--and also the American creed provided
means by which those who were excluded from the full benefits of
American citizenship, the--provided means by which they could carry
out a--a legal and constitutional fight for their rights. It's a
LAMB: You say in--in this book that the US has worked so far. What'd
you mean by that?
MR. SCHLESINGER: We have held together, more or less, except, of
course, for the Civil War. And what I meant by that was that we are
in a stage with the end of the Cold War of a--where ancient tribal
antagonisms, ethnic antag--rivalries, and so on, are bursting--which
had been repressed by the Cold War, are beginning to burst out. One
nation after another is being torn apart by this. I mean,
the--the--in the murderous form in Yugoslavia where we have seen
the--the--how--what c--r--horrors religious and national rivalries can
generate. Even in a nation as tranquil and peaceful as Canada, Canada
is on the verge of bust-up because of different linguistic and ethnic
I think that all this suggests that--that you can push--the
w--suggests that we ought to pay more attention to what holds the
nation together. We're in a--living in a time of the breaking of
nations for ethnic, tribal, religious reasons. I think one reason why
I wanted to revise the book, "The Disuniting of America," was I think
we're more s--sensitive now to the need to find things that hold us
together then we were when the book first came out. I think the
Yugoslav experience has reminded Americans that if you press ethnic
r--rivalries too far, if you dec--d--d--decide that people belong
irrevocably to one or another ethnic community, ethnic tribe, that
that may be the road to trouble, and that there is some virtue in the
older idea of assimilation and integration. That is, we are, after
all, Americans. The--the melting pot has worked unevenly; it's worked
imperfectly, but it's--it has pro--produced the ideal of one people.
LAMB: The first time this book came out was 1991, then it was redone
in 1992, and now in 1998. And you say in the book that history is a
weapon. What do you mean by that?
MR. SCHLESINGER: History is a weapon. History--i--ideally
str--str--strives for objectivity above the battle and so on. But
historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience
and their own times, and very active. S--the selection of facts from
the past involves an interpretation, a sense of priorities, a sense of
values as to what--what matters. S--history can be a very strong
weapon for people who wish to--to construct a certain movement in a
certain direction. Hi--history, for example, has been the victim of
nationalism, often, y--what's happening in Yugoslavia, what's
happening in Ireland.
George Mitchell, our--who did the superb job in bringing about the
peace settlement in Ireland, used to say that--he--he once said to me,
`You--you historians are worried about the fact that, you know, young
Americans don't seem to know much of their history.' And I said, `Yes,
and we are baffled. Everyone said, `Well, wha--people don't know when
the Civil War took place and so on.' He said, `The trouble with
Ireland is that they know too much of their own history and they try
to re-enact it.' And, of course, they t--they're filled with
resentments over grievances that took place half a century ago, a
century ago, 300 years ago, back to Drogheda and Cromwell, so that
history can be a weapon in the sense of vindication of people's desire
to get back at somebody else or to move in one d--direction or
another. I think that one show--sees us in the construction these
days of curricula, where is--the feeling is that people ought to be
made--they ought to become proud of their ancestors. And so you get
into a kind of ethnic cheerleading, which I think is at the expense
of--of--of realistic history.
LAMB: You know, when we sat down here, I asked you how to pronounce
your name correctly. Why don't you do it one more time?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I say Schlesinger (pronounced shlay-zing-ur).
That's the German pronunciation. But it's a matter of fielder's
choice. I can't even get my wife to pronounce it correctly.
LAMB: But you point out in--in--you talk about your father a couple
times in this book...
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yes.
LAMB: ...and you mention Xenia, Ohio. We--where were you born?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I was born in Columbus, Ohio. My father was born
in Xenia, and my father was a f--more eminent historian than his son.
He was a great leader in the cause of social history half a century
ago--the history of immigration and the history of women. He was
mu--he was one of the pioneers in the enlargement of history in what
would be now called the multicultural direction.
LAMB: What year did he die?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He died in 1965.
LAMB: And what did his father do?
MR. SCHLESINGER: His father was a--came to this country just before
the Civil War as a--as a young boy--he had a brother over here--and
moved to--moved out to Xenia, Ohio.
LAMB: Where'd he come from?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He came from Germany.
LAMB: Whereabouts in Germany?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Prussia. He was a great admirer of--he was an
ardent Democrat and a great admirer of Grover Cleveland. And when my
father was born in 1888 and Cleveland was coming up for re-election,
he wanted to name this new baby Grover Cleveland Schlesinger.
Fortunately, my grandmother and my father's two older sisters
intervened and saved my father from that fate, and if not, I might
be--well be Grover C. Schlesinger Jr. today.
LAMB: Well, why Xenia, Ohio? What was the--what was the draw there?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Xenia was a s--was a s--small--pleasant, small
town. It was in b--kind of a local c-c--it's a county seat in Greene
County in Ohio, and seemed a thriving place, used to have an opera
house, a th--theater and so on. And my--my grand--grandfather liked
it very much. He was a very strong supporter of education,
particularly of the public library. They had the Carnegie library in
LAMB: What'd he do for a living?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He was an insurance agent.
LAMB: And then how did your father become a historian?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He went to--my father went to Ohio State and wanted
to be a newspaper man, because he'd been in--when he was high school,
a local--the Xenia correspondent for a Cincinnati paper. But he did
so well in--in--at Ohio State that his professors said that he should
d--go on to graduate work at Columbia. And he got a fellowship at
Columbia, came on to New York and fell under the influence of James
Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard and went on to become a
LAMB: And then how long did you spend in Columbus, Ohio?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I left Columbus, Ohio, at about the age of one, and
so my memories are not vivid. My father l--left o--Ohio State to
go--go to the University of Iowa, where he became head of the history
department. And then s--a--a few years later, when I was about six
years old, Samuel Eliot Morison at Harvard became Harmsworth professor
at o--at Oxford for a year, and he w--he r--he'd met my father and he
recommended that my father be brought to Cambridge to--as a visiting
professor to take his place for that year. And so my father came to
Cambridge, and after a year, they offered him a--a permanent job, too.
So I--from the age of six or seven, I grew up in Cambridge,
LAMB: And where did you go to school?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I went to public schools and I went to Phillips
Exeter Academy, I went to Harvard. I spent a year at Cambridge
LAMB: And you've got a PhD in...
MR. SCHLESINGER: I don't have a PhD.
LAMB: You do not.
MR. SCHLESINGER: I d--the--I--after I spent the year of thir--I
graduated from college in 1938; spent the year of '38 and '39 at
Cambridge, strange twilight year between Munich and the war. I then
came back, joined something called the Society of Fellows at Harvard,
which was established by a former president, A. Lawrence Lowell, who
didn't--was not enthusiastic about the PhD system, so this was for
people who could do what they wanted to do for a term of three years,
so long as they didn't work for a PhD. Well, by the time the--my
three years was up, the--we were at war and I w--got involved in that.
By the time I got back from overseas in 1945, I'd already wr--written
a couple of books and seemed no point in getting a PhD.
LAMB: You've written how many books?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I forget.
LAMB: There's listed out here 14.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, it may--may be.
LAMB: Sometimes they don't list all of them.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yeah.
LAMB: Of all those books, which one sold the most?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I have no idea. I honestly don't know. But
LAMB: What about "1,000 Days of John F. Kennedy in the White House"?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Probably that did.
LAMB: What year did you write that?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I wrote that in 1965.
LAMB: And before that, you were doing what? Before you wrote that
book, right--you know, how much time did you spend with the Kennedy
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I can't--I joined the Kennedy administration
sh--very soon after the administration began, and I resigned the day
after Dallas because I felt the president--the new president, Lyndon
Johnson, ought to be s--have his own people, people with whom he could
work and whom he trusted. And Johnson s--persuaded me to stay for the
transition, so I stayed for a few more weeks, and then re--resigned
and wrote "1,000 Days."
LAMB: When you look back on that administration and you look back on
the book that you wrote, have you changed your mind about anything
that you saw when you were in there with the--the last 30 years of
time between it?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I wrote a second book called, "Robert Kennedy & His
Times," where--with--that came out a dozen years after "1,000 Days,"
by which time more information was available. And the--the
perspectives had changed, and so on, so that I think my mature
ju--judgment of the Kennedy administration comes in the--in the second
LAMB: What's the biggest legacy as far as you're concerned?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think the biggest legacy--I mean, there are
s--some specific legacies, such as the Test Ban Treaty, for example,
and the movement toward relaxation of tensions in 1963, the civil
rights fight, which began in 1963, and the space ex--beginnings of the
exploration of space, and so on. But I think the mo--most general
sense was that what Kennedy tried to--wanted to do is to tap the
latent idealism of the American people, as FDR had done, when h--when
Jack Kennedy and I were young, and as Wilson had done when Jack
Kennedy and I were born. He believed strongly that
th--this--tha--that--we were capable of--of intelligence, reason and
generosity in national policy.
LAMB: Would--were you older or younger than Jack Kennedy?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He was born in May 1917 and I was born in October.
LAMB: Where did you meet him?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I'd gone to--to college--a college classmate was
his older brother Joe Kennedy, who was killed in the war. I knew Joe
Kennedy. I was aware--Jack Kennedy was a couple of years later
because he was--had to take a year off because of sickness. He was
the class of 1940. I was aware of him, but I didn--did not know him
till after the war, when he became congressman from the district in
which I lived and senator from the state in which I lived. So we got
to know each other in the late '40s and the 1950s.
LAMB: What impact did the assassination have on you personally?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I couldn't--I mean, the--the mixture of grief,
horror and incredulity. It was a shattering time, shattering thing to
have happened to a--a--a brilliant, capable man who w--was robbed of
the chance of fulfillment of his life and of his hopes, and he wanted
it--sort--sort of introduced a whole decade of, it seemed--it seemed
to one, of spreading violence in one sort or another, culminating, of
course, in the 1968 assassinations of Martin King and Robert Kennedy.
One had a s--almost a c--feeling that the s--whole social fabric was
unraveling in that strange decade.
LAMB: What do you think of the current discussion which says that if
the media had applied the kind of microscope it did--or they do to the
current president on his personal life, if it had done that to Jack
Kennedy, that it would've been a whole different atmosphere?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I doubt that because, I mean, they--the
current theory seems to be that--that everyone in Washington knew
about a parade of bimbos through the White House and that they covered
up because they liked Kennedy or because the rules deflected that kind
of inve--inquiry. That--you read Ben Bradlee's book. Ben Bradlee was
a--Jack Kennedy's closest friend in the press, was head of the
Newsweek bureau, he was at the nerve center of news gathering there.
Ben Bradlee says--writes that he did not know about these things. I
wa--certainly was not aware of any kind of dif--b--waywardness which
would interfere with the conduct of public business.
LAMB: What do you think...
MR. SCHLESINGER: So I think it was much exaggerated.
LAMB: What do you think of this whole issue as a historical, you
know, discussion? I mean, is this--is this of any value at all?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think if you're wri--writing personal
biographies of presidents, it's--it's of interest. I don't think it's
a matter of--of s--public concern. The--I think the--you know,
the--is--we're--I wr--wri--I think that the American people have--have
r--reacted with a sc--certain and hardly surprising maturity to this
question with--with regard to President Clinton. I don't think people
deplore what is the alle--the--I don't think they admire what is
alleged about his conduct, but they do think it's his own business.
Th--they separate it--it's a separate question from his success
for--as a president.
I think the--the adultery test--once I--the year th--Gary Hart was
forced out of the presidential contest in eight--18--1988, the Robert
Kennedy book award that year was divided between David Garrow's
biography of Martin Luther King and a book by Elizabeth Becker about
Cambodia. I was chatting with the two authors at the--on this
occasion, and we--we were talking about Gary Hart and it emerged that
Martin Luther King, of course, was a man of certain sexual waywardness
in his private life, yet he was a great moral leader and made a great
difference to this country. Pol Pot of Cambodia was apparently a man
of strict--strict, a faithful husband, a man who deeply believed in
family values. All he did was to murder a million of his countrymen.
I think there are limits to the adultery test, as a t--t--as a
standard to apply to s--to statesmen.
LAMB: What did you do in your work after the White House? Where did
you go back to when you went back to being an historian?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I--after the White House, I spent some months at
the Institute of--of Advanced Study at Princeton and then was asked to
be--a choice of r--I decided not to go back to Harvard.
LAMB: How long had you been at Harvard?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I had been there f--I had lived in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, for 40 years, and as Thoreau said when he left Walden,
he said, `I greatly enjoyed my time at Walden, but I decided that I
had other lives to live.' And so I was attracted by an--an offer of
the Schweitzer professorship at--in the humanities at the City
University of New York. So I came and did that.
LAMB: How long?
MR. SCHLESINGER: So I came there about nine--I f--was there until I
retired, for about--for nearly 30 years.
LAMB: What year did you retire?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I retired about a year and a half ago.
LAMB: And are you writing a memoir?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I am writing memoirs. I finally--was finally
persuaded to write memoirs, which I guess I better do while I can
still remember anything.
LAMB: So where are you in that process?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I'm in the Second World War.
LAMB: And how much m--how much--how big is this gonna be, one volume?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I doubt it. I thi--I'm af--I'm afraid that it'll
either be one long volume or two shorter volumes.
LAMB: And when do you hope to complete it?
MR. SCHLESINGER: When I complete it.
LAMB: Let me go back to your book: Hate speech...
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm.
LAMB: You write about this in here. What is it?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Hate speech is speech which incites racial,
religious or ethnic antagonisms of one sort or another. And the
question is whether hate speech should be suppressed. And of course,
the suppression of hate speech would ab--require an abridgement of the
First Amendment of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme
Court. Justice Holmes once said that the First Amendment is not just
license for the speech with which we agree--o--obviously, there was no
great virtue in that--but it's license for the--for the speech that we
hate. And the fir--to--to try to identify hate speech involves the
whole cr--and to suppress it raises the whole specter of censorship,
and censorship of that kind would be hostile to the purposes of the
First Amendment. I think it--hate speech is--is--is hateful, but I
think the way to deal with it, as Justice Brandeis said, is--is to
have more speech, not less speech.
LAMB: Let me read that quote, 'cause I have--that's on a page before
that, on Brandeis.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yeah.
LAMB: Did you ever know him?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yes, I knew Justice Brandeis.
LAMB: Where did you know him?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He was a friend of my father's, and
I've--with--with my parents, I visited the ju--Justice and Mrs.
Brandeis in their summer cottage in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape
LAMB: And there's a school named after him.
MR. SCHLESINGER: The Brandeis University, yes, in Waltham,
LAMB: When was he on the Supreme Court?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He was o--he was nom--he was put on the Supreme
Court about 1915 by Woodrow Wilson, and he retired about 1938 or '39.
LAMB: What was he like?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He was a--he was a t--had the air of an Old
Testament prophet, really. He looked--he looked rather--he was tall
and impressive, looked like Lincoln in a way. He had great moral
quality, great moral intensity, and he was a ve--he was a very
LAMB: Here's the quote you have in here, h--talking about speech:
"No danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless
the incidence of evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall
before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to
expose through discussion of falsehood and fallacies to avert the evil
by processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech,
not enforced silence." I mean, we get into that discussion here about,
what do you put on a network like this?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And almost everything goes.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: I mean, if s--there's a public event and somebody says some of
the things they say in these public events that are--you know, don't
sound so good to some people's ears, we let it go.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Should we do that?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yes. I mean, I--what's the alternative? Censor
LAMB: Has there been a time when we have tried to censor things here?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think there've--there've been--always been
censorship with regard to pornography, the allegedly obscene materials
and so on, and I think there is some point in that, particularly
ke--keeping children--when--when children are involved. I--but
that--I don't think--I doubt that when James Madison wrote th--the
Bill of Rights that he had hu--Hustler in mind or some of the
m--semipor--pornographic magazines. But I think what he--so far as
speech having to do with public policy or artistic expression and so
on, we--we have to--to fight for the full liberty of the First
LAMB: But you write in--in this in regard to what's going on in
college campuses and multiculturalism and political correctness.
What's your take on all that?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I can w--understand why college
administrators would like to clamp down on--on--on abusive speech. I
think that they're con--have a t--entirely understandable concern for
kids who come from minority groups who are insecure and--and f--feel
themselves intimidated by complacent white, bullying students. I
mean, it's a d--very difficult situation for college administrators.
Hence, the development of speech codes. Speech codes were means of
prohibiting various forms of speech fr--as a matter of administrative
convenience, you--one can understand why administrators go to that.
But I think they make a mistake. I think there are other forms of
persuasion, including the--I think the remedy, as Brandeis said, is
mo--is more speech. I think the kind of--of--it's--more of a
challenge to college presidents, to college deans, to professors,
faculty members is to p--point out to the--the bullies and the--and
the racists among their students what th--what the meaning of it is
and what the implications of it are. I think that's gonna be--do much
more good in the long run than speech codes which infringe the fir--on
the First Amendment.
LAMB: You point out in your book that at the University of
Pennsylvania they have a separate yearbook for blacks.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What do you think of that idea?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I don't think it's a very good idea. I mean,
I'm of--of that generation which believes very strongly in--in
integration and assimilation, and I think that anything which--I mean,
multiculturalism is a fact of life. We've always been a multicultural
country from the beginning. I think for a long time the minority
cultures were diminished and excluded. But one of the great themes of
American history has been the movement from exclusion to inclusion. I
mean, it's been a faltering movement. It's still incomplete, but yet
it's the kind of persevering direction in which we--in which we--we
are going. And I think the--the m--insofar as multiculturalism means
recognition of the minority achievement, it's absolutely essential we
should have much more of that insofar as it means looking at things
with different perspectives. The arrival of Columbus, for example,
from the viewpoint of those who met him, as well as from the viewpoint
of those who sent him. That's very useful, too. The pr--problem with
multiculturalism is when it become--when it rejects assimilation and
integration and when it tries to establish and perpetuate and
celebrate separate ethnic and racial communities, then you are moving
in the direction of Yugoslavia, or at least of Canada.
LAMB: There is a--you ask a question here in--in your book. It says:
`Can they be kidding up there in Northampton?' And you're talking
about Smith College, Nor--Northampton, Massachusetts. And you say,
`The office of student affairs at Smith College has put out a bulletin
listing types of oppression for people belatedly, quote, "realizing
that they are oppressed."' And then they go on to list the--you
do--the sins of the oppressed: ablism, heterosexism and lookism.
MR. SCHLESINGER: (Laughs)
LAMB: Where did you find this, and what's it all about?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I--I don't know. I--it's--I--I hope that
Smith has r--r--recaptured its sense of humor about these things. But
I--I think it isn't--lookism isn't--how is it--what--lookism defined?
LAMB: `Lookism says the belief that appearance is an indicator of a
person's value, the construction of a standard for beauty,
attractiveness and oppression through stereotypes and generalizations
of both those who do not fit that standard and those who do.'
MR. SCHLESINGER: I know. I mean, it's--it's--it seems to me the
desire to protect people reaches kind of ridiculous proportions. Life
consists of hard knocks and--and ca--and developing an ability to--to
deal with them. I think the notion that you should--that anything
that hurts or might be considered to hurt someone's feelings should
not be said is a very dangerous standard. The insensitivity standard
leads, in the end, to s--what happened to Salman Rushdie. Salman
Rushdie wrote a book which the ayatollahs of Iran regarded as
blasphemous, as offensive to true, believing Muslims. So they put a
price on his head, the f--the so-called Fatwa. It's still operative.
I mean, he's--poor old Rushdie can't move anywhere without bodyguards.
But that's--the notion--the hurt-feelings standard is--cannot survive
in a free society. If we had the hurt-feelings standard throughout
American history, that would've silenced Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce,
Mr. Dooley, H.L. Mencken and so many other people who've enlivened
and--and illuminated American life.
LAMB: Mr. Mencken is on your list back in the back of the baker's
do--this is not the--baker's--yeah, baker's dozen. I guess that's 13,
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yeah.
LAMB: That's not--not 12. And his book was "The American Language."
Now would you have agreed with him politically on very many things?
MR. SCHLESINGER: No, no. I--Mencken was a great writer. And he was
a wonderful, liberating sensibility--force in American life,
particularly in the 1920s. He was a libertarian, but he was not a--he
was not a democrat. His la--his--in the small D sense. He regarded
the masses of people with a certain scorn, if not contempt. And--the
booboisie, he called them.
LAMB: You say he's--he seems sour and mean-spirited.
MR. SCHLESINGER: In the--in the 1930s, at a time when we were in a
great--in the Depression, of course, he regarded all political--all
politicians as charlatans. He couldn't stand Theodore Roosevelt or
Wilson or Briand or Franklin Roosevelt, and he was very much against
the New Deal and so on. So politically when--I didn't always agree
with him. But I admired him tremendously as a writer and as a
liberating force and as a ch--great champion of the American language,
which he saw as different from the English language. He was a great
philologist. I mean, he collected words and sought out their origins,
and "The American Language" is a fascinating book. He was a wonderful
writer. It's a fascinating compilation of the d--of--the way that the
American language had departed from the English language.
LAMB: I wrote something down, speaking of language, and I want to ask
you about language and how much you think about when you write. The
phrase that I wrote down here was `voguish blather.' You say, `I am
confident'--let's see, `The situation in our universities, I'm
confident, will soon right itself once the great silent majority of
professors cry "Enough" and challenge what they know to be voguish
blather.' How hard did you work on that phrase?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I don't know. I thi--these phrases slip into one's
mind or pen or word processor.
LAMB: How much time do you spend thinking about language when you
MR. SCHLESINGER: Oh, I think of nothing else, I suppose. I mean, I
try t--I think about--the--the precision of clarity of expression
requires you to think about what you're trying to say. And to--I
was--a great influence in my life as a writer was a historian and
critic of--of half a century ago named Bernard De Voto. De Voto
was--his--his history books, "Year of Decision," cr--"Across the Wide
Missouri," and so on, are still read. But he was--among other things,
he taught for awhile at Harvard, taught English composition. And he
was a ruthless critic. He would write insulting and goading comments
on--whenever he saw something which seemed pretentious or murky or
So it enforced on me a great concern for clarity and precision in the
use of language. I use the dictionary whenever I want to make su--I
got the right shade of expression. But what--clarity in language
depends on clarity in thought. And the--the--one of the great virtues
of writing is it requires you to thi--well, Dean Acheson used to say,
`How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?'
LAMB: What kind of dictionary do you use?
MR. SCHLESINGER: An American Heritage dictionary, I think.
LAMB: And of the things that--you know, the research or the reading
or the writing, of those three elements of what you do, which do you
enjoy the most?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I enjoy 'em all. There's nothing more fun
than--than archival research.
LAMB: Where do you do it?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I've--I've done it in many institutions
through the country: the Library of Congress, New York Public
Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard University Library
and so on, Kennedy Library, the Roosevelt Li--Kennedy Library in
Boston, the Franklin Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. I've even been
at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. And time passes
going through manuscripts very agreeably and very quickly. But I like
LAMB: What--what do you do when you write? Where--where do you do
MR. SCHLESINGER: I do my writing in--in the--in the--in our
apartment in--in New York.
LAMB: In New York City?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Mm-hmm.
MR. SCHLESINGER: On a wo--word processor.
LAMB: And how long have you been doing the word processor?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I have been on a word processor for eight or 10
years, I guess. I think it's a glorious invention, the ease of
editing and transposition and so on. When I think of the years I
spent typing and retyping the same page in order to get clean copy, I
regard the word processor as a great blessing.
LAMB: Now as you're working on your memoirs, where are you in that
process? Research? Writing? Thinking? Re...
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I do--I--I've--I r--I do combine. I mean,
I--I have a--the research has been basically done. So whenever I
enter a new phase of my life, I pull out folders and refresh my
memory, look at letters or diaries which I've kept intermittently
through my life. And memory is--plays a lot of tricks, but--but it
also generates memories. So you suddenly begin to think about things
you hadn't thought about for 40 or 50 years.
LAMB: When you kept diaries in your life, how did you do it?
Physically, what did you put it on?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, for awhile, when I could--my handwriting was
still legible, I kept it in handwriting, but the last 40 years or so
LAMB: Do you have a lot of notes over the years?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And what part of your life do you have the most notes from?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I suppose I have a lot from the Kennedy years
because I--I felt that I had an obligation as an historian who--given
this seat on the making of history. I felt I had an obligation to
note down things as--as I saw them happen.
LAMB: Did you do it right away after you saw 'em?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yeah.
LAMB: Every day, night or...
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I--I would work of--often until 2 in the
morning. I wouldn't do it necessarily every day, but e--nearly every
LAMB: And do you have stories that you've never told before that
you'll end up writing in your memoirs? And how do you--tell us how
you approach a memoir vs., say, either an autobiography or a history
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I don't know the difference between a memoir
and an autobiography, but you--you try to recapture your--what you
thought at some other time in your life and how that made a difference
to your life and anything amusing or interesting that happened or
people you met. It sort of takes its form as it goes.
LAMB: But, you know, a lot of people who've read this book think it
sounds awfully conservative. Have you heard that before?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I don't think it's conservative at all. It's
a very liberal book. It's just defending the First Amendment and so
on. Yes, well, occasionally you get--they--they--they--I think
there's a fallacy that the notion that militant multiculturalism is a
liberal view. It's not a liberal view. It's really a view of the--of
the new left of the 1960s. And if you remember the 1960s, the new
left regarded liberals as their main enemy. They--they weren't
worried about conservatives, but the new left and the radicals of
the--of the '60s were very much opposed to liberals. This is a book
that most liberals wholly agree with. It's the--it's the--the aging
radicals of the 1960s and their equivalents in the 1990s who--who are
the--who feel that to talk about one people is injustice and who want
to perpetuate ethnic and religious and racial differences.
They're bound to lose, Brian. I think the most telling statistics is
the rate of intermarriage, marriage across ethnic lines, marriage
across religious lines, marriage across racial lines. More
Japanese-Americans marry Caucasians than marry other
Japanese-Americans. So many Jewish-Americans marry non-Jews that
people are worried about the future of a--of a Jewish community, of a
Jewish identity. The black-white marriages have--have quadrupled over
the last generation. And the attitude toward what used to be called
misogynation has been absolutely transformed. So I have confidence
that love or sex will defeat those in the end who want to disunite
LAMB: Now periodically you--you've come out with a survey in The New
York Times about the presidents of the United States. When did all
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, it really was my father's, like many--many
other things I inherited, the presidential polls from--from my father.
He first, in 1948 for Life magazine, polled historians and political
scientists as to how they would rate the presidents. And then in 1962
the Times--New York Times Magazine asked him to replicate that poll,
so he did it. And in 1996 the Times Magazine asked me to do the poll
again. I--so I--I--I did it.
LAMB: And then about a couple months later the--I think it was the
National Review came out with a poll by Walter McDougal, which showed
a little bit of a difference on--as to how--the--the categories. And
one of the criticisms they made of that poll was that you had of the
32 historians, only a couple of them were conservative. Did that--did
you read that part of the criticism?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yes. Yes. Well, there were some conservative
historians there, and what--not that--most historians, it must be
said, tend to be liberal. But we enforced McDonald and some other
conservative historians in the poll.
LAMB: Why is it that most c--historians are--are liberal?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think because they be--they see the
necessity of change, that change is the essence of history and,
therefore, are more sympathetic to change than conservatives. If
history--if there were--if cha--change were not the essence of
history, there'd be no point writing history if everything stayed the
LAMB: In your book you talk about the African-American Baseline
Essays. What were they or what are they?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, they're a series of essays which were
published some years ago in--as part of the Afrocentric movement.
These essays attempt to show that most good things in the world
originated in Africa. They talk about the glories of African kingdoms
and so on. They're a--a gross form of ethnic cheerleading. They're
rejected by most thoughtful black historians, and they--but they had a
b--I think people felt--people of good heart, generous intention, felt
that if this made young black students study harder, if it made them
feel better, why not use this as a basis for reform--changes in the
curriculum? So that a number of cities, for a while, played around
with one version or another of the Afrocentric curriculum influenced
by these--these standard books--treatises to which you were referring.
I think the vogue has passed partly because of the--of the leadership
of--of black intellectuals who feel that this is not the way to deal
with the question, partly because there's no clear relationship
between academic performance and the question of self-esteem and
glorifi--if--I mean, self-esteem really comes from achievement. It's
not a cause of achievement--achievement, it's a consequence of
achievement. And I've never noticed that telling Greek-Americans
about the glory that was Greece to Greek-American kids or
Italian-American kids about the grandeur was--that was Rome improve
their academic performance.
LAMB: What's the New York history curriculum?
MR. SCHLESINGER: The New York history curriculum is a result of the
Iroquois lobby. There's a--a section calling for a--making a great
point of the alleged influence of the Iroquois Confederation on the
formation of the American Constitution. I mean, they're--you can
unders--understand the pressures of ethnic groups, religious groups,
gender groups on school curriculum. They want to get their nice words
said about their own past and so on. But that--a result of that is a
corruption of history.
LAMB: Current history, what do you think of it--basically, the books
that you see coming out on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I--it all depends. Some of--some of them are
very good; some of them are--are very hasty, superficial, sensational
books. I think the--I think there's a great appetite for history in
the US. I mean, the success of Ken Burns' documentaries, the success
of The History Channel, the success of C-SPAN, which provides a kind
of o--coverage of contemporary history. I mean, a number of
people--you know better than I--watch "Question Time" in the House of
Commons and so on. All this is--it shows a real desire to--to--to
l--to learn history.
I like--I think there's some objection to memoirs by
poli--poli--polit--people in government or out of government on the
grounds that this--these are kiss-and-tell books and so on. I'm not
against them. I think they enrich the historical documentation, if
they're written rather quickly, whereas the people involved or people
mentioned in the book are still alive, they have their chance to--to
refute or rebut or criticize the--so that the whole process of
publishing memoirs and other people commenting on them and--and
supplementing them or denying them--all this enriches the evidence
available for the future historian.
LAMB: You, at--at one point in the book, point out that in 1900
America was the most literate country in the world and that now we're
45th. What--what happened?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I suppose it's a--a decline of the--of the public
school system, which is a large part of this. The public--the public
schools were much more e--the decline of the public school system has
been associated with the--the decline of the city and
the--particularly the decline of the inner city, where public schools
are valiantly doing--still go--carrying on. But so often they've been
deformed by violence and by s--pressures to--to lower standards.
It's--we're more and more a society that depends on the filling out of
forms, so the illiteracy becomes a real--real problem. Other
countries since 1900 have also become more literate, and that's
another reason why we have declined in the standing.
LAMB: Go back to your dad. How much are you like your father or--you
know, I know he's not here with us anymore, but how--how much were you
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I were--I certainly have inherited many
thoughts of my father and--as well as an int--a preoccupation,
obsession with--with history. He was a better teacher than I and more
involved in academic life than I have been. He was--he was less of a
political activist, I suppose, and less in--involved in kind of
polemics and--about current--current policies.
LAMB: Do you have children of your own?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Six.
LAMB: Six children? What are the age ranges?
MR. SCHLESINGER: They range from 25 to over 50.
LAMB: What kind of work are they in?
MR. SCHLESINGER: One of them runs the World Policy Institute
at--Stephen has written--written two or three books. The World Policy
Institute at the new school in--in New York. My--my youngest son,
An--Robert, works for The Hill, the weekly newspaper covering Capitol
Hill in--in Washington.
LAMB: What is he, 25?
MR. SCHLESINGER: He's 25. They--I have a daughter who runs a public
relations firm in Boston; another daughter who's a painter and teacher
of art and a son who's an independent television producer, Andrew--did
the one on Adlai Stevenson on PBS a couple years ago--a few years ago.
And a son who--a stepson, who's an entertainment lawyer.
LAMB: And did you try to pass on what you got from your father in
history to any of the kids?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I--it's more a matter of the atmosphere in which
one grows up and--I mean, yes, I--Stephen and--and Catherine and--have
both written books dealing with history; Catherine, one about the
cultural revolution in China. Andy's made television documentaries of
a historical sort. Robert is writing current history and so on.
LAMB: So what's the best training for someone who wants to be a
MR. SCHLESINGER: Curiosity about the past and having good teachers
in school and college.
LAMB: And when you were teaching at the City University of New York,
what kind of courses did you teach?
MR. SCHLESINGER: I taught seminars or colloquia in diplomatic
history and in--in--one term and intellectual history the next term.
I alternated between diplomatic and intellectual history.
LAMB: And did you notice any change? I mean, you sh--showed that the
literacy in this country has gone way down, but did you notice any
change in--in the kind of students you got over the last 20 years or
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, at graduate school you got people who were
fairly qualified and who have a dedication. They want to get a PhD
degree in order to teach or to write. And I had--I--both Harvard and
at City University I had very good students. I think that
they--there's much less training in writing, it seems to me, than
there used to be. I think the true-or-false exams--exams in which you
don't have to write anything, you just indicate and then you feed them
into a compu--I think they're a menace. I think that people should be
forced to write all the time from the earliest grades. I think
clarity and expression in communication is the essential thing, and I
think there has been a decline in that.
LAMB: Now looking back over the people you've known in your
life--forget the obvious, the Jack Kennedys and the Robert Kennedys
and people like that--who have you enjoyed knowing the most?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think there are two people, one American
and one English. The American is Reinhold Niebuhr, the great
LAMB: And you have him as one of your baker's dozen.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Yes. His book, the "Irony of American History"--I
learned a great deal for him--from him.
LAMB: At Harvard.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I actually met him through the Americans for
Democratic Action, ADA, and--but I c--we became great friends and I
learned a great deal fro--from him, from his writings. Another is the
Englishman Isaiah Berlin, who died the other day, a brilliant,
sparkling man of high intelligence, wide range, great wit, great
humanity and a great i--great historian of ideas.
LAMB: So when do you find yourself connecting with somebody?
What--what is it about those two that--that you--you personally
enjoyed so much?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Well, I think partly, personal chemistry and partly
that I learned a great deal from them.
LAMB: And in history, besides Jack Kennedy, who was your favorite
president and why?
MR. SCHLESINGER: FDR. I think FDR was a man who really knew how to
be president. And, of course, I grew up when FDR was president. His
capacity to--to bring back a stricken nation--remember that in--when
he became president, a quarter of the labor force was out of work,
couldn't find work. Our Gross Domestic Product was half of what it'd
been a few years before. The banks were all closed and so on. And
his capacity to bring--revive this country through leadership and
experiment and audacity--and then, of course, his wisdom about the
war. So I think he led our country through the worst Depression in
our history and the greatest war in our history. And that's why,
all--nearly all the polls end up with Lincoln, Washington and FDR as
our three greatest presidents.
LAMB: And with the little bit of time we have left, where would you
put Bill Clinton at the six-year mark?
MR. SCHLESINGER: Hard to--it's hard to say. I think he's--he's
a--he's a man of ve--high intelligence, impressive technical command
of complicated issues. When the spirit moves him, he has genuine
eloquence. And the spirit moves him most in the--most crucial issue
we face as a c--nation; that is a question of race. On the other
hand, he's--he's made some decisions such as the so-called welfare
reform--signing the welfare so-called reform bill, which I regret.
It's a mixed record. You can't--you can never tell till the opera's
LAMB: And our guest has been the author of this book, which is in its
third edition--it came out in '91, '92 and now '98--"The Disuniting of
America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society." Doc--not doctor,
but Arthur M. Schlesinger...
MR. SCHLESINGER: Right.
LAMB: ...Jr. Thank you very much.
MR. SCHLESINGER: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1998. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.