In the last hours of February, at the age of 89, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. passed from this world. Not only did America lose its last great public historian, as Sam Tanenhaus recently wrote in The New York Times, but on a much more personal level, The Fund for Independence in Journalism and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington lost a wonderful, devoted friend.
When I quit 60 Minutes and decided to start a nonpartisan, investigative reporting “watchdog” organization called the Center for Public Integrity, beyond our tiny Board of Directors (myself and two journalist friends who didn’t know each other initially, Alex Benes and Charlie Piller) it was clear that we needed an Advisory Board to lend stature and credibility to such an improbable, quixotic enterprise. From my home, I sent out scores of letters to well-known, highly-respected people who I had greatly admired for years – Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, historians, political scientists, journalists – inviting them to lend their name along with occasional wisdom and advice to this effort. Arthur Schlesinger was one of the very first “luminaries” to accept my invitation, in 1989. It is difficult to overstate the psychological impact of receiving such news in your daily mail, after weeks and months of slogging in silence and solitude. I wanted to start a new enterprise “quasi-journalistic and quasi-academic” and as a recently practicing journalist, enlisting well-regarded journalists seemed entirely possible and we were indeed fortunate when Bill Kovach, Hodding Carter and later others agreed to join the Advisory Board. Other respected social scientists followed Arthur – James McGregor Burns, James David Barber, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Father Theodore Hesburgh and William Julius Wilson, among others.
My first meeting with him was in 1989 at his office at the City College of New York, amidst his musty, floor to ceiling books and papers. It was of course great fun, and honestly couldn’t have been much more exciting. He could not have been nicer or more encouraging, and even in that first meeting, imparted some very wise advice I took to heart. I was inflamed by the latest corruption outrages in Washington, including one particular issue I recently had investigated, and Arthur gently reminded me to consider the broader, historic issues – not this scandal or that agency, but what had been happening over many years to public service and democracy itself. Process, the system, the macro political landscape began over time to interest me and the Center the most, and frankly differentiate the research organization and its comprehensive approach from daily news organizations and issue-driven advocacy groups. At one point after publishing our first studies in those early years, The Boston Globe described the Center as “an investigative think tank.”
Raised in a Republican family, I had come of age reading A Thousand Days, The Imperial Presidency and later Robert Kennedy and His Times, and numerous articles among his prodigious output of shorter writing over the years. His diminutive size, with, of course, the ubiquitous bow tie, belied his enormous output and public impact over many decades. Consider that he wrote 18 books, winning the first of two Pulitzer Prizes at age 27 for his second book, The Age of Jackson, published in 1945, and writing War and the American Presidency, published in 2004, 59 years later.
Over the ensuing years, I had many conversations with him in numerous settings, most enjoyably over lunches at his unofficial table at the Century Association in New York or breakfasts in a small restaurant a block from his eastside Manhattan apartment. One especially memorable evening was his 85th birthday party, attended by some of the most important figures in American politics and journalism the preceding 40 years. His eating habits always privately amused me – how so small a man could eat so much, always eggs at breakfast, often steak at dinner, and of course his beloved martinis. That his last hours and minutes on earth were at Bobby Van’s restaurant in New York was some kind of metaphor for the extraordinary personal, social, professional life to the fullest he had led, which included serving in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II to the White House with President John F. Kennedy.
Arthur was indefatigable on behalf of the Center for Public Integrity. On one occasion, he spoke to the staff and interns at our office in Washington. In 1996 he very kindly flew to Los Angeles to speak at a public forum with me and others at UCLA to discuss the state of democracy and the price of power in America’s brutal presidential campaign process, pegged to the publication of my first book (written with the Center staff), The Buying of the President. That evening he extolled the Center’s work to 60-70 people at a reception about the Center. In 1998, he and his wonderful wife Alexandra hosted a book party for us at their apartment to celebrate the release of The Buying of the Congress. It was there that I met Bevis Longstreth, who later joined the Center Advisory Board and whose extraordinary idea it was to create the Fund for Independence in Journalism, of which he is chairman.
Getting to know some of Arthur’s family has been very special; in particular, for a few years at the Center, we benefited from the innate journalistic talent and irrepressible humor and spirit of his youngest son Robert, who went from the Center to The Hill newspaper to The Boston Globe and beyond. A gifted, facile writer like his father, Rob is now completing a book for Simon & Schuster about presidential speechwriters.
The “keep up the good work” encouragement was always there, from the heart. Weeks after I had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, in July 1998, Arthur wrote a poignant, personal letter to me, saying, among other things, that “you and the Center have maintained high standards of rigor, purpose and reliability . . . with honesty, impartiality and plain speaking.” At the 10-year anniversary of the Center for Public Integrity, he wrote another magnificent missive (published in full in the 2000 Annual Report, on the Center Web site with the other annual reports), describing the Center as “an indispensable truth-teller in a treacherous time.” In his last book, written and published during the Iraq war, he mentioned the Center’s publication online of secret draft legislation written by top aides to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, which became known as the “Patriot II” sequel to the controversial Patriot Act of 2001.
In 2005, with great reluctance because of his increasingly frail health and his already stalwart support of the Center over the years, on behalf of the Fund Board of Directors, I sheepishly asked Arthur if he would mind lending his fine name to be a member of the Fund’s new Advisory Council, which also includes Columbia University president Lee Bollinger and Yale Law Dean Harold Koh. Offended that in its work the Center had come under siege from expensive libel litigation brought by powerful interests, of course the ever gracious Arthur agreed, with the understanding that travel and attending meetings would not be possible.
We often hear about nonprofit organizations and robust civil society in America, but rarely do even informed citizens fully appreciate how difficult such enterprises are to initiate and sustain. Or how many people – comprising Boards, Advisory Boards, becoming members, providing financial support, doing the actual work – and how much of their time and energy are required for any emerging institution to make a national or international impact. Or the vital importance of factual information and public accountability in a free and open society. Thankfully Arthur Schlesinger was, like the President on whose staff he served, an “idealist without illusions.” And he understood that democracy is not a spectator sport for any citizen. The advice and mentoring he gave to me was not dissimilar to decades of similar fellowship he tirelessly gave to generations of authors, historians, presidents, White House speechwriters, would-be politicians, college students, etc.
We are all, at the Fund and at the Center, forever in his debt.
Read more in Accountability
How a critical advisory group got sidelined by two administrations
Concerns raised about secrecy, industry influence and political interference