A Restless Spirit: An Interview with Former WPI Director Stephen Schlesinger

 By Jesse Cottrell

Ever since childhood, politics have been central to the life of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) Professor Stephen Schlesinger. A son of Pulitzer Prize winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the grandson of Harvard’s famed historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., he remembers President John F. Kennedy and two-time Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as frequent visitors to his family’s living room.

Schlesinger’s career has been one of significant accomplishments. He’s authored Bitter Fruit, the first and best book about the U.S. supported Guatemalan coup of 1954, and Act of Creation, detailing the beginnings of the United Nations.

Schlesinger, who teaches “The U.S. and UN” at SIPA, has also served as a speechwriter for former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and for George McGovern. For McGovern, it during his 1972 presidential campaign. Schlesinger was also a journalist for many years, working at Time, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, and The New York Post.

He also served as Director of the World Policy Institute for nine years. Currently working on a collection of his father’s letters and serving as a Century Foundation Fellow, Schlesinger recently sat down with Jesse Cottrell for World Policy Journal, reflecting on life, the uprisings in Syria, the UN, and the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Did you always want to work in politics?

STEPHEN SCHLESINGER: I grew up in a family where politics was part of our environment. My father was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. And then he joined the Kennedy Administration. So politics was second nature to me. Having Adlai Stevenson and JFK come over to my house as a child influenced me a lot.

WPJ: In the late 70s you were at Time magazine then took a leave of absence to work on Mario Cuomo’s  New York mayoral campaign. Soon after you were writing your first major work, Bitter Fruit. Tell me about how you ended up writing that.

SCHLESINGER: After Cuomo lost, I thought to hell with Time. I'm going to work on this book. For the next couple years, I wrote. It was tough because my collaborator (Stephen Kinzer) and I couldn't get any interest in the book. But I knew this was an incredibly important event in foreign policy. We'd overthrown a democratically elected government. We'd committed a crime. We'd violated our own constitution. And so that kept me going. Luckily by the time the book was finished, Central America was a big issue under the Reagan Administration. So when the book came out in 1982, it got incredible coverage and terrific reviews.

WPJ: What was it like writing at The New York Post?

SCHLESINGER: I was there when Murdoch bought it. I worked with him for a while on the editorial page. He was a very charming buccaneer, but he was always interested in profit. Everything about him radiated, "how can I make money off this?" That shaped his conservative outlook. But when I was there he was still in a liberal frame of mind. They had a strike at the Post, because the people who worked there hadn't a contract for years. The newspaper guild finally took action when Murdoch took over. Eventually the Post fired me, because I wouldn't cross the picket line. The Post exposed me to the seedy side of daily journalism. Even under its liberal editors, it was all splash and big headlines. I never wanted to do that again.

WPJ: You’ve said that your time from 1997 to 2006 at the World Policy Institute, was the best job you ever had. Why?

SCHLESINGER: Because I was running it. I wasn't just staff. I was being creative, having authority to move things. Not to denigrate my previous experiences, but it gave me a more creative sense of myself. Even though all those other jobs were very high level, working as a speechwriter for a presidential candidate, writing for Time, wielding influence over a man who was very politically important while in office. But the World Policy Institute let me be creative and be its central figure. It was more exciting from that point of view, also scarier because you’re there doing it all alone.

WPJ: Why did you start to develop an interest in the UN?

SCHLESINGER: I was always interested in foreign affairs. I'd been abroad during the Czechoslovakian uprising of 1968. I was there right before the tanks rolled in, I wrote about that in my stories for The Village Voice. There was a kind of glamour to the whole thing that riveted my attention. I looked around for something that would feed that interest. I found a story in The New York Times about a scholar who had applied under the Freedom of Information Act for materials on why the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Incidental to the release was material from the FBI that disclosed that the U.S. had spied on all the countries who came to San Francisco in 1945 for the UN Conference. That spurred my interest. I thought if we were spying on everyone, what was it about the Conference that was so important? That we would put resources of that magnitude to intercept cables, put our agents out there to find out what was going on. That was the trigger. From then on I investigated the founding UN Conference.

I learned that without that Conference there would have been no UN. And that the Americans played the central role, that we were the ones who organized it, drafted the charter, brought the delegates, ran the whole meeting, and wrote the final document. I thought, "Why have we never written about this? This is a great U.S. contribution to the world."

WPJ: How do you think the Americans would perceive the UN differently if they were more acquainted with the crucial role the U.S. played in creating the organization?

SCHLESINGER: When the UN treaty was brought before the U.S. Senate, it was approved almost unanimously, 87-2. If you put that same treaty before the Senate today, I don't think it would pass. In 1945, there was support for the organization because of the catastrophe of World War II. I think if people were reminded …  why it came to being. Tracing the history of the UN over the last 67 years, how it's settled so many conflicts, decreased the amount of violence, helped feed starving populations, brought medical care to different parts of the globe, they might have a different sense of why it's important.

Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all talked about the UN as if it was a normal part of our national security. But since then, it's been a dead subject. No President since then has mentioned the UN in his inaugural address. No President since then has been wiling to stand up and say it's an important part of our heritage.

WPJ: As a UN historian, what do you see when you look at the UN’s inability to halt the crisis in Syria? Does this fit into some pattern of how the UN relates to this sort of disaster?

SCHLESINGER: In Syria, there's the [Cold War] split again. China and Russia believe it should be settled by the conflicting forces within Syria coming to some agreement. Short of that, the UN is ineffectual. All it can do is work to create the circumstances that will lead to a settlement. But I don't see how that's going to happen. I think in the end the U.S. may end up doing what it did in Kosovo; work through NATO to create no-fly zones on the Turkish border. Otherwise, it'll have to be a battle that will solve itself.

WPJ: If the U.S. acts unilaterally against the wishes of China and Russia, what will it mean for the UN?

SCHLESINGER: In Kosovo, it hurt the UN when NATO went in without UN backing. But the UN survived. After Serbia pulled back, the UN came in and was the negotiating party that kept Kosovo in a semi-independent condition. I think the same thing could happen in Syria. If the warring parties reach a point where they don't want war anymore, they can bring in the UN.

The UN is hurt for the moment. But people will realize that at some point they'll have to call in the UN, either to settle a peace or help rebuild societal structures.

WPJ: Have you been paying attention to U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's latest gaffe, saying 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government?

SCHLESINGER: Unbelievable. He's run one of the most inept campaigns. They ought to seal his lips until the election. Then he might be able to win. It must be dismal in that campaign right now.

WPJ: You were a print journalist and now you're a blogger for the Huffington Post. You’ve seen up close how news reporting has changed over the years. The Romney video was shot in May, but only recently gained fame because of the Internet. Do you think 35 years ago this video would have been as widely seen?

SCHLESINGER: It would have totally gotten lost. Now if a candidate says something, it's automatically on somebody's tape. If they make the wrong remark, it gets blown up. That's what happens to political people today. Which makes it even more extraordinary that Romney has been indiscreet because he knows that's the new media. Yet he makes one remark after another. The “$10,000 dollar bet” and “corporations are people;” it's unbelievable.

WPJ: Do you think it's good that we're now a ‘gotcha’ society?

SCHLESINGER: Probably not, but it's the way it is. There are pluses and minuses. The pluses are that during a revolution like in Libya or Syria, we can find out what's happening on a daily basis. We can see things that would have been repressed by the Syrian government. The downside: we give up on privacy. Look at Princess Middleton having pictures taken of her. Any new technological development can be used for good or bad purposes. The question is: How do you reorient people's thinking to get them to use technology in the best ways rather than the worst ways?

WPJ: Do you think this has anything to do with the shorter news cycle, with 24-news stations and Internet news sites constantly on the hunt for material?

SCHLESINGER: I think a lot of journalists, as a result, jump to conclusions when they don't have the facts. Nowadays you're not only writing a story, you have to update it during the day. You're recording Twitter feeds, e-mails, you have to do web feeds. It's non-stop. I think it's exciting, unnerving, and potentially destructive. It's a voracious maw; a machine that needs feeding all the time. You may lose by not being part of that. You need the most sophisticated media people around you if you're in politics to address that giant machine that always wants more.

WPJ: Looking back, do you think you’ve had a central purpose driving you in your career?

SCHLESINGER: I wanted to leave some kind of impact with my life, one that would survive me after I'd been long gone. Some people do that by getting elected senator or president; some people do that by becoming the best swimmer in the Olympics; some people become the best artist. I did it by wanting to become a writer, who would leave behind some decent books that people could use as a guide to knowledge about Guatemala or the UN. … I wanted to leave a legacy of some sort. If I was just working as a speechwriter for a great man or as an anonymous writer at Time, I couldn't do that. So I maneuvered my life in a  way that I could always write a book. I was always conscious that in the end, this was the most important thing to me.

WPJ: Do you think that you got this impulse to leave something behind from your family?

SCHLESINGER: I think I did. My granddad on my father’s side was a historian at Harvard. My grandfather on my mother's side was a Harvard Medical School Professor who wrote a bunch of books. My father wrote 16 books. My mother's written a couple books. It took me a long time to have the confidence to write a book. I didn't know if I was that good a writer. Even then, every time I start a new book I have the same feeling "can I get through this, will it be a failure, is it worth it?”

WPJ: With all your professions, it sounds like you had a restless spirit that made sure you didn't get bored.

SCHLESINGER: Exactly.  I think "not getting bored" is an operative phrase. I also think there was a part of me that wanted the experience of academia, media, politics, and writing. And I've done all four of those things. And they've each had their own impact. But every one of those things I wanted to experience.  These things all reflect my upbringing.



Jesse Cottrell is a 2013 Master of International Affairs Candidate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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