James Rodney Schlesinger was assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of the CIA, secretary of defense, secretary of energy, chairman of The MITRE Corporation, managing director of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and my friend. He was a colossus in Washington; a great Sequoia who towered in the forest.
Schlesinger, who died on March 27, more than anyone I've known in public life, including presidents, prime ministers and industrial savants, knew who he was. From that, came a special strength: He didn't care what people thought of him. What he did care about were the great issues of the time.
He was a man of granite, steel and titanium, and he could take abuse and denunciation – as he did, most especially, as the first secretary of energy. He also had extraordinary intellectual ability. No name, time or date evaded him, and he understood complex issues, from geopolitical balances to the physics of the nuclear stockpile.
Les Goldman, a key member of Schlesinger's circle in government and in life, said his genius was in capturing huge quantities of information and synthesizing it into a course of action. He also had phenomenal energy, going to work very early in the morning and staying up late at night. During his tenure at the U.S. Department of Energy, he had to testify on Capitol Hill almost daily, so he checked in at 5 a.m. to get the work done. His relaxation was birdwatching.
Schlesinger was a great public servant; someone who venerated public service without regard to its rewards. He drove a VW Beetle for years and lived in a modest house in the suburbs. Even as secretary of defense, a post from which he could order up airplanes, ships and limousines, he kept an extraordinary modesty. Pomp was not for him.
But he was a tough customer. Schlesinger spared none with his invective and regarded the creation of enemies as part of the normal course of getting things done.
And getting things done was what he was good at -- rudely awakening somnolent bureaucrats, angering whole industries and unsettling cliques, as he did at the CIA. Wherever he was in charge, he applied his boot to the sensitive hind regions of the complacent, the lazy and the inept. He punctured the egos of the self-regarding and kept military men waiting, tapping their feet and examining their watches.
Once at the CIA, Schlesinger and I were engaged in a long conversation about the British Empire – a favorite subject – when his aide, who had been hovering, came back for the second or third time and said, “Sir, the admiral has been waiting for an hour already.” “Good,” said Schlesinger. Then, as an aside to me, he said, “It's good for admirals to wait.”
On another occasion, when I was part of a press party traveling with Schlesinger after the opening of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve site in a salt cavern in Louisiana, Schlesinger sent his trusted and well-liked press chief John Harris back to the reporters to say that Schlesinger wanted to talk to me. I went forward to the executive cabin, where the secretary of energy was playing the harmonica.
“I'm taking requests,” he said. I blurted out the few songs I knew, and he played on -- and on and on.
After about half an hour, Harris came forward again to say that the other reporters, including Steve Rattner, who was to become a billionaire Wall Street investor, but was then a reporter with The New York Times' Washington bureau, wanted to know why I was getting an exclusive interview.
They wouldn't be mollified with the assurance that I was listening to the great man play the harmonica. Rattner in particular, believed that I had some big story that I'd publish in The Energy Daily and embarrass him and The Times.
I reported on nuclear power for the trade publication Nucleonics Week, which is how I had met him at the Atomic Energy Commission. But at night, I worked as an editor at The Washington Post.
Quite suddenly, President Richard Nixon nominated Schlesinger to replace Richard Helms as director of the CIA, and The Post op-ed pages were flooded with articles about Helms, but not a word about the new man in Langley. I asked Meg Greenfield, the storied editorial page editor, why she didn't publish something about Schlesinger. No one, she said, knew anything about Schlesinger.
I avowed as I did, and the result was a longer-than-usual piece that she published on a Saturday. It became the “go to” archival resource for a generation of journalists writing about Schlesinger. But it cost me my day job, as my editor didn't think I should be writing in The Washington Post. So I started what became The Energy Daily, a trade paper.
The trick to friendship with James Schlesinger was disputation. He'd like people he could talk to and especially argue with. I argued -- over Scotland's most famous product -- about American exceptionalism; the uses of force; the limits to power; the Gulf War; the Saudis; obscure points of grammar, as he was strict grammarian who always found time to telephone me, and later e-mail me, to correct my slippages.
We argued for more than 40 years and loved every syllable of it.
We argued vigorously over Bill Clinton. I was Schlesinger's guest at the legendary Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington and I fell into conversion with the president, Bill Clinton. When I returned to the table, looking pleased, Schlesinger exclaimed, “You've been talking to him!” -- as though this was some huge betrayal.
He also didn't like Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford, the latter having fired him.
Schlesinger admired what he called “intellectual structure.” But I could never get him to define it.
Close to the end of Schlesinger's life, my wife, Linda Gasparello, and he were engaged in a complicated and loving dispute over Henry II and Eleanor of Provence. He loved that kind of thing.
Journalists are ill-advised to care too deeply for the men they write about. Schlesinger was my treasured exception.
By Llewellyn King