History Classes

Featured image
Samuel Seabury Playground, 95th Street and Lexington Avenue. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, October 15, 2020. After two days of rains and winds and cooler temps, yesterday was a bright, sunny one in New York with temps ranging from the low 60s up to 70 by mid-afternoon.

History Classes. The past few days of rains and wind was reason enough to stay in except for errands and meals. The state of things socially, greatly diminished in the past few months right up until the present, has given many of us more time to read.

The 35th Anniversary Issue (October 1998) of The New York Review of Books.

My most favorite magazine is the New York Review of Books. A friend gave me a subscription as a birthady present in 1968 and it remains the one item I consciously look for in my mailbox at the beginning of every month. If you’re not familiar with it, its editorial content is mainly historical including the arts, philosophy, science and politics. As well as literary of course. 

I suppose you could call it an intellectual publication but I am not an intellectual. I read it because I always come away with having learned something informatiave and thought  provoking. I never read an issue from cover to cover. Many times I never finish it and tend to save issues for specific articles that aroused my curiosity. Saving issues of magazines as you may already know means they can pile up to the point of being too much.  Over time I check out the pile and eliminate — but many remain. 

Yesterday in “editing” the pile of the saved, some with the newsprint now brown with age, I found the 35th anniversary issue (October 1998) with many possibilities of interest including the top headline of Joan Didion’s piece called “Clinton Agonistes.” The article was accompanied by a caricature  of Monica Lewinsky (with a big fat cigar in her mouth) by the great caricaturist David Levine. 

The subject of Didion’s piece was the business of the Independent Counsel’s investigation into President Clinton’s Presidency, i.e., his private behavior (with among others, Ms. Lewinsky). For those who don’t remember the matter, it was all about the Impeachment of the President which was completed on December 19th of that year (1998) by the House of Representatives on grounds of perjury to grand jury and obstruction of justice.

Naturally being a devoted fan of Ms. Didion and also, at the time, of President Clinton, I must have read the article when it came out but saved it. Didion’s first paragraph had me instantly:

No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent. The man was, Jesse Jackson said that year to another point, “nothing but an appetite.”  No one who followed his appearances on the Road to the White House on C–SPAN could have missed the reservoir of self-pity, the quickness to blame, the narrowing of the eyes, as in a wildlife documentary, when things did not go his way: a response so reliable that aides on Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign looked for situations in which it could be provok

Didion’s article of several thousand words aptly and fairly analyzed the man and his two term Presidency and provided grist for perceiving his (as well as his wife’s) political future. The years that have followed re-confirmed and enlarged it.

The satisfaction I got from reading it piqued my curiosity about What Else? could I find on the pages of in this anniversary issue. And so I turned to the October 1965 interview of Sir Isaiah Berlin by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. about Jack Kennedy. (Another in depth/long one.) 

John F. Kennedy was the first President I got to vote for. Like many of my generation, as well as many others, I was deeply impressed by the man. I saw him in the flesh only once — in November 1960 in Lewiston, Maine at about one o’clock on a very cold, very early Maine morning. I was attending Colby College at the time, which lay 50 miles north in Waterville. We’d got word in the early evening that JFK was making a quick barnstorming appearance at around 10 p.m.

About 8:30 that night, a couple of roommates and I drove down the Maine turnpike to Lewiston. We arrived at the site of the campaign stop around ten with a big crowd of what looked like mostly students already amassed. It turned out to be a wait of maybe three hours before he showed up. By that time there were thousands of us hanging in there, bundled up for autumn Maine nights, waiting impatiently.

It was about 1 a.m. when the candidate and his party arrived. My memory’s eye recalls only the mass of humanity excitedly anticipating a glimpse, which would be mainly in the dark with a just a few spotlights around the speaking platform. As his security moved him through the crowd pressing enthusiastically into his path, from no more than six feet away, I saw the man moving quickly but uncomfortably, with a tense grimace (of discomfort) on his face.

You could see there was nothing exciting about the matter for him as he finally got to his destination. It was late and cold. He must have been exhausted. Yet once onstage, he commanded everyone’s attention with his thoughts and his Boston accent. speaking briefly and clearly about being there and about the world outside of Lewiston, Maine. Whatever thoughts or wisdom he passed on was quickly overcome by the sheer excitement of seeing this extraordinary man in our presence.

John Kennedy speaking from the city park gazebo during the Lewiston campaign rally in November 1960. (Lewiston Sun Journal)

The early years of his Presidency were very exciting to many, especially young, Americans. Esquire Magazine ran a piece of the new President and the First Lady referring to them as the first movie stars in the White House. This was a time when “movie stars” were still on pedestals in the public perception.

The Kennedys were also in a class of American success that was above most of us in the public perception. They were not Society so much as a royal image, albeit American.  Handsome, beautiful, rich, bright, witty, empathic, caring about education, freedom, equality, they personified a new age of hope for the future, and plugged into power. Three years later, of course, all of that ended with gunshots in Dallas. All hopes and dreams gone, diminished to the area of grey memory.

So now all these years later, I had before me this 55-year-old Schlesinger interview with Isaiah Berlin in the New York Review of Books. Both men were historians of high caliber. Schlesinger was very close to the Kennedy Presidency and wrote about it.

Isaiah Berlin was a famous scholar / historian / philosopher whose presence animated wisdom for this reader. Born in Latvia (then part of Russia) in 1909, when he died the front page of The New York Times concluded: “His was an exuberant life crowded with joys — the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends …. The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings …. Sir Isaiah radiated well-being.” 

Arthur Schlesinger was prominently among those who were in the new President’s areas of acquaintance. He was frequently present in the new President’s coterie. He would later write “A Thousand Days,” his history of the John F. Kennedy Presidency.

So I started reading. It’s a long piece, several thousand words. I’m sorry I can’t connect you to it because it is inciteful, sensible and practical, along with the magic allure of personality and charisma. John Kennedy had it all, and it was a gift to those exposed to it during his brief time in office.

The following are two excerpted pieces of the interview, of Berlin’s recollections of meeting the man for the first time. His perceptions are useful in getting a sense of being in the room with him.

Excerpts from 10/13/98; New York Review interview of Isaiah Berlin by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. About Jack Kennedy:

The first time they met was at a dinner with several others or prominence at table.

Isaiah Berlin: But the point about him was that he gave one the air of luminous intelligence and extreme rationality, and cutting through a lot of dead wood. He didn’t accept loose or vague statements, or the kind of general statements which people make who haven’t very much to say but feel they ought to make some contribution to the conversation, simply as a form of registering the fact that they are present and have views.

Isaiah Berlin in 1983.

Whenever that kind of statement was made by any of us, he stopped us short and asked us exactly what these words meant, and brought it all down to extremely clear and shining brass tacks. In all these cases he was very good.  But I had the impression of an extremely concentrated figure, very uneasy to talk to, not at all cozy, not at all comfortable; on the contrary, self-conscious, and no doubt, on that evening, worried; in general, withdrawn rather than outgoing, in spite of all the jokes and jollity during dinner and afterward, and his iron self-control. There was an enormous sense of unsureness of some sort, maybe simply because he felt among intellectuals, or something of that kind, and he wasn’t quite sure what he ought to talk about or what he was expected to do. A curious lack of self-confidence of the part of the President of the United States.

He wasn’t at all easily dominant. He was like a very important person, a frightfully important young man, who was in charge of enormous things, constantly leaping over hurdles. I had a sense – I may be wrong about this – that except at times when he really relaxed, no doubt among his intimates and people he knew well, he thought of life as a series of hurdles, resistances, which had to be overcome, and therefore screwed himself up to it each time; and that he didn’t do it in a sort of easy, jaunty fashion, which obviously Roosevelt must have done, or with the natural sense of public life as his proper element which Churchill had. I think he had to screw himself up each time and expend nervous energy upon obstacle after obstacle, hurdle after hurdle. It was a hard thing.

Arthur Schlesinger: Did anything surprise you about him that night? I mean anything that was different from what expectations you might have had?

Isaiah Berlin: Yes. I think I must have conceived of him as being rather more ordinary in a certain sense. Rather like a song of amiable, gay, successful, ambitious young Irish-American.  Not at all. He was serious and glowed with a kind of electric energy; and a rather inspiring figure to work for – that I could perceive. And there was this mysterious charismatic quality, certainly. I could see that he was driving somewhere, and people who liked that sort of thing would be delighted to follow him, to be driven by him, to cooperate with him. He was a natural leader, and absolutely serious, absolutely intent. There was something deeply concentrated and directed, fully under control. If ever there was a man who directed his own life in a conscious way, it was he – it seemed to me he didn’t drift or float in any respect at all. Some kind of embodied will, you felt. This was really impressive.

I met Churchill late in life, and he was by this time a famous sacred monster, and therefore behaved in accordance with what must have become a kind of second nature. He behaved exactly like a person permanently on a stage, saying those marvelous things in a splendid voice and delighting the company, but they weren’t the natural utterances of a normal human being. They were the grand utterances of somebody on a great historic stage. Whereas with Kennedy you felt that it cost him some effort, but that probably Emperor Augustus was rather like that, who had suddenly inherited an enormous empire, was frightfully serious, perhaps rather ruthless, but determined to carry the whole enormous load, to carry the whole thing to an enormous success, cost what it might. This, anyway, was terrifying but rather marvelous. Oh, I was deeply impressed; I really was. Frightened, rather, but impressed.

President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in the Oval Office, July 26, 1962. (National Archives/JFK Library)

Arthur Schlesinger. When was the next meeting?

Isaiah Berlin: The next meeting was in the White House. Well, you remember that. Nothing very significant occurred on that occasion. The atmosphere was much easier. This, of course, was after Cuba No. 2 had occurred, and he was in a glow of absolute happiness. He said, more or less that he thought that Cuba No. 1 would remain as a stain upon his reputation, no matter what he achieved later, no matter how glorious and splendid his presidency would be. There would always be this fearful stigma, which historians would always note. I then felt that he really was thinking about history: not so much his reputation, but the figure he would cut in history and his particular relationship to other historic figures. He saw a panorama. There is no doubt it was all very self-conscious in that sense. He was unspontaneous to the highest degree. This is, I think what made conversation with him — for strangers, at least — a little difficult. Interesting, but difficult. 

He obviously, quite naturally, was in a state of triumph and satisfaction after the second Cuba crisis, and again talked about the Russians, but this time in a much more relaxed fashion. He wondered what he was going to do; he wondered how he would now get on with Khrushchev (ed. note: the Russian Premier at the time of the Cuban Crisis); he wondered if this humiliation cost Khrushchev too much; he wondered if something ought to be done to save his (Khrushchev’s) face and what, if so, he could do.

And one more moment out of Berlin’s presence at the White House:

Isaiah Berlin: On this particular occasion, I think his brother, the attorney general was present. The rapport between the brothers was absolutely astonishing. Whenever either spoke to the other, the understanding was complete, they agreed with each other, they smiled at each other, they laughed at each other’s jokes, and they behaved as if nobody else was present. One suddenly felt there was this absolutely unique rapport, such as is very uncommon, even among relations. They hardly had to speak to each other. They understood each other from a half word. There was a kind of telepathic contact between them.

A treasure and a pleasure.

Recent Posts