Published on March 28, 2014
At a party celebrating his 95th year, a sweet young thing once asked Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé if he could think of anything positive about growing very old. Without missing a beat, Strausz-Hupé sipped at his champagne and answered: “Yes: One’s enemies grow silent.”
Alas, one’s friends, mentors and cherished associates do, too. James Schlesinger, who died yesterday at the age of 85, is a case in point. As I approach a mere 63 years of age, I sense the world rolling forth in such a way that those a decade or two ahead of me (and a few in my own, as well) are liable to fall off the edge at any time.
Unsettling as the fact may be, there’s nothing to be done about it, in this case or in any other—least of all by repeating what the obituaries are already saying. When a former cabinet official and CIA Director passes away, everyone enmeshed in the journalistic web is obliged to say something, and a certain sameness tends to pervade the genre. As many know, one of the first things aspiring journalists are asked to do is to draft obituaries for well-known figures who are still very much alive. I don’t consider myself a journalist either first and foremost or last and least. So let me instead briefly describe my encounters with Jim Schlesinger over the years, scant and episodic though they were, and what at this somber moment I glean from them upon reflection
The first time I laid eyes on Jim Schlesinger, one-on-one and in the flesh, took place at the front door of Scoop Jackson’s home on Rockwood Parkway, near American University, one early morning in June 1979. The doorbell rang, and Scoop—not quite dressed yet as he plucked suit and shoes from a closet specially organized to protect him against the embarrassments of his color-blindness—shouted for me to answer it, please. (Of course, you might wonder, dear reader, what the deuce I was doing at Scoop’s house at 7 AM on any morning. Short answer: I was the designated house-sitter while Scoop was away for much of the summer in Everett, Washington and China, but he had not yet departed Washington—so I shared the house with him for three or four days, at his kind invitation.)
I opened the door and there stood, looming, but with a friendly smile on his face, Jim Schlesinger. I guess he expected to see Scoop. He saw me instead—“kid” then age 28, with John-Lennon glasses and dark beard. I pre-empted: “Good morning, Mr. Secretary—Senator Jackson will be right down.” (Schlesinger was 50 at the time, and had already been DCI and SecDef… he rose young and rapidly.)
“And you would be?” he asked in reply.
“Adam Garfinkle, very newly minted Ph.D. and an insignificant junior staffer; oh, and designated house-sitter for when Scoop heads off to China.”
“Is that your 1952 Cadillac over there?” My car was in the tight circular driveway in front of the house.
“It sure is—the garage is already full.”
“Does Scoop still have that beat-up old Chevy in there?”
“The white ’61? Yes; but it’s not all that beat up, really… I’m looking forward to exercising it during the summer. Um, you want to come inside to wait?”
“No, thanks; I think I hear him coming down the steps now.” And indeed he was.
Scoop thanked me for getting the door as he whooshed past to join the then Secretary of Energy whom Jimmy Carter would soon fire—Schlesinger waved “so long” to me, and that was that.
I knew—everyone knew—Schlesinger’s reputation: gruff, arrogant, ruthless, unfriendly, condescending, no-nonsense, all-business out-of-central-casting Harvard economics Ph.D. and former RAND Corp. big shot. He was nice enough to me, though; and he knew a ’52 Caddy when he saw one. Scoop got along well with him. So how awful could the guy possibly be?
Some years later, when I was executive editor of The National Interest, Schlesinger was a board member and an occasional author. I used to see him at our annual dinners, and on at least two occasions Owen Harries assigned me to edit a major lead essay by Schlesinger. Schlesinger took great pains in his writing, and he was very particular about some aspects of the art. But he was wise enough to know when a talented editor could help him, and, happily, he thought of me as that caliber of editor.
Other authors we communicated with by fax and phone, as necessary, back in those ancient days before email attachments, in the iterative process that constitutes serious professional editing. Schlesinger instead twice demanded my physical presence for the culmination of the editing process. Once I went to his house in Arlington, off Nellie Custis Drive. On another occasion I remember grabbing a taxi out to his office at the Mitre Corporation, and we went line by line over the text at hand.
Schlesinger could be irascible. He could even be slightly volcanic. But he had a definite view of how he wished to sound and, far more often than not, he was right on the merits. Basically, he disliked adjectives. He detested flowery language and lazy sentiment of all kinds. He accepted the suggestions he liked gracefully, and would listen patiently to my explanations of why this formulation was superior to that formulation. But as someone 23 years my senior he put himself in mentoring mode as well. I was helping him, but at the same time he was teaching me—like the old UVa. economics prof he was. We jawed and scribbled and jawed some more. Two and a half hours later I was completely exhausted; he wasn’t in the slightest. The essay, however, now gleamed.
I saw him from time to time in those days, even when we had no essay to polish for press. Sometimes he was in pretty good spirits, other times he wasn’t, and among those other times he was occasionally into spirits of the Scotch whiskey variety. He once explained it to me very simply: “I still miss Rachel.” (His wife of more than 40 years, and the mother of their eight children, passed away of cancer in 1995.)
Schlesinger had a tendency of referring to anyone younger than him as “young man”, even if they were in their 50s or 60s; but for some reason he always just called me Adam. I don’t know why. One day he called me out of the blue after he’d read some essay I had published and told me how much he liked it. I was bowled over. Then he said, “Adam…” and proceeded to tick off two or three or four points that, he averred, might have made the essay even stronger. Damned if he wasn’t right, too.
Sometime in 1999 I left the position of executive editor at The National Interest to go work for the Hart-Rudman Commission staff. Schlesinger was one of the 14 commissioners, so I saw him at fairly regular intervals both in commission meetings and privately for most of the next two years. I was the principal writer for all three of the Commission reports, including the last one—the rubber-meets-road recommendations part—that represented the business end of the Commission. Each of the three reports was shepherded by a senior adviser reporting to the Commission’s executive director—Lynn Davis for the first one, Peter Rodman for the second, and, de facto at least, Jim Schlesinger for the third.
Schlesinger was, of course, just one of 14 commissioners, and not surprisingly the seven Democrats and seven Republicans did not always see eye to eye on matters of substance or style. Schlesinger knew that if he sat next to the man with the pen—me—he’d get more than his share of flesh. And so on several occasions we went at it again. He would come over to the staff offices in Crystal City with a marked up manuscript, come into my office without knocking, shut the door, sit down, wave his arms around and begin to bellow at me; for one example: “Whose f____ing idea is this crappy title?”
“In this case, Jim, it’s Newt’s. What was I supposed to do? Tell him no?”
“Well we’re gonna change it”, he shouted, “and if he objects you can tell him to come see me.”
“Yes, sir—let’s do it.”
And we’d go line by line, line by line, line by line, with Schlesinger alternatively exasperated, thoughtful, in praise, and in frequent frustration over the audacity of other commissioners who dared to disagree with him. Sometimes he would say things that took me aback. For example, he scoffed at the idea that economic competitions could really be multiple-sum where they mattered most. When the relative economic weight of the United States declines, he told me, even if we are also absolutely better off in material terms, our political leverage will suffer. And he would point his index finger toward my chest and growl, “Now don’t you forget that, Adam, and don’t listen to these liberal ninnies who think the world is some sort of Boy Scout camp.”
“Forget? Me? How could I, Jim?” Yikes.
After the Hart-Rudman gig ended, I became editor of The National Interest, now newly supported institutionally by an unequal partnership made up of the Nixon Center and Hollinger International (aka Conrad Black). The less said about that arrangement the better; suffice it to say that, after roughly two years, the head of the Nixon Center, with Mr. Black seated at his side, fired me. We discussed severance terms and came to what I thought was an agreement.
After a short time, having gained new employment working for Colin Powell at the State Department, what I thought had been agreed wasn’t—or wasn’t any more. I turned to Mr. Black to recall the conversation as it actually took place and to bear witness to same, and he somehow failed to recall it. To bring this shard of a story to an end, none other than Jim Schlesinger, who was a senior member of the Nixon Center board, called me a few days later to broker a compromise solution. The compromise was of his design, he told me, and I thought it fair enough under the circumstances. I would not have said no to Jim Schlesinger in any event, but I didn’t need to. He clearly regretted how things had turned out, and counseled me to have no regrets—“You have conducted yourself honorably”, he said—and to point myself toward the future. It’s hard even now to express how much his words meant to me at the time.
Our last encounter, already some years ago, produced no artifact. Jim Schlesinger was an inveterate and intrepid birder. He not only knew Cadillacs; he also knew a wood thrush from a wren. When the film The Big Year came out in 2011, I happened to get from a publisher a book on bird-watching. So I asked Schlesinger if he would consider reviewing the book and the film together for The American Interest. He told me he was tempted, but he just didn’t have the energy for it. So it goes.
Jim Schlesinger was a great man, a consequential man, and an enigmatic man too in some ways. He was both abrasive and kind, aggressive and cooperative, disheveled but disciplined. He disliked ego-preening politicians, excessive concern for creature comforts, sappy meliorists, lazy thinkers, and anyone who responded sideways to an argument with ad hominemaspersions. I’m honored to have known him, and to have learned from him. (Were I to express any more emotion than that, Jim would definitely not approve.)