Memoirs From the Most Exclusive Club

As It Was: An Inside View of Power and Politics in the '50s and '60s by Henry Cabot Lodge Norton, $8.95,224 pp.

THERE WAS ONCE a time when family wealth, a well-known Yankee name and a Harvard education could take a man far in Massachusetts politics. The tradition began early with people like Samuel and John Quincy Adams and has continued--with minor ethnic variations--to the present day. Two former United States Senators from Massachusetts, Leverett Saltonstall'14 and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. '24, who were a part of that tradition, and whose political significance went far beyond Massachusetts, have published memoirs about their years in politics, entitled, respectively, Salty: Recollections of a Yankee in Politics and As It Was: An Inside View of Politics and power in the '50s and '60s.

Although the books differ in scope and style, they provide a wealth of detail about local and national politics during the periods when they were close to the centers of power. The books abound with famous names, dropped casually. From Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan to Eisenhower, Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy brothers. Saltonstall, now 84, told his life story, from elementary school through retirement, to Edward Weeks, a former editor of the Atlantic Monthly. The book is written in an oral, conversational style. Weeks presumably asked questions to guide Saltonstall's memory and helped organize the narrative.

Lodge apparently wrote his book by himself, which covers only the period following John F. Kennedy '40's election to the U.S. Senate in 1952--a victory that was at Lodge's expense, causing his retirement from the Senate. That defeat, however, launched a new career for Lodge as a presidential adviser and later a diplomat, which provides most of the material for his book.

Saltonstall's father was a successful Boston lawyer, and was the first of the Saltonstalls to become a Republican, largely because of the influence of his Harvard classmate Theodore Roosevelt. Young Saltonstall followed his father's party affiliation and was always loyal to the Republicans. He went to Noble and Greenough, a local day school, Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He began his law career in the firm of his uncle, Endicott Peabody Saltonstall.

In 1920 he ran unopposed as a Newton alderman and in 1922 was elected to the Massachusetts House. In 1929 he was elected Speaker of the House and served in that post for eight years. In 1936 he tried to get the Republican nomination for Governor, failed, and ran as their candidate for Lieutenant Governor. The ticket lost, although Saltonstall by a margin only about one tenth as great as the gubernatorial candidate's.

In 1938, Salty ran again and won. He was re-elected to two more two-year terms. In 1944 he ran for the seat Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. had vacated to join the Army, and served there until 1966.

The anecdotes Saltonstall relates are almost unfailingly amusing. When Boston Mayor James Michael Curley was informed that Endicott Peabody Saltonstall was appointed District Attorney of Middlesex Country to replace a politician who resigned in disgrace, Saltonstall says that the Mayor asked, "What? All three of them?" After Saltonstall was elected to the State House, a friend sent him to the Boston Transcript in search of some good free press. Saltonstall was told to see Lodge, who was then a young reporter. But when Saltonstall said he wasn't going to hold any rallies or make any speeches, Lodge threw up his hands and said "How do you expect me to give you any publicity?" Saltonstall also says he exercised one of the Speaker's prerogatives by standing up at the end of a particularly stormy session of the Legislature in 1935 and taking the gavel with him.

There was, of course, more political substance to Saltonstall's career. He introduced and saw enacted the first compulsory automobile insurance bill in the country; as a young boy vacationing out West he heard William Jennings Bryan speak; he commissioned the first political poll in New England for his 1938 gubernatorial campaign. And as governor, he strove always for balanced budgets, and campaigned primarily on that issue as well as his own integrity. In the Senate, Saltonstall served as the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and later was its ranking Republican member.

That, coupled with his position on the Defense subcommittee of the Appropriations committee, gave him considerable power over defense spending, and his weekly presence at White House legislative conferences with Eisenhower gave him input into policy. He also served on a very small, almost unknown committee that was supposed to watch over the Central Intelligence Agency. Although Saltonstall takes issue with the increasing clamor for more open hearings on CIA activities, and says the CIA always answered his questions, he admits that often he didn't known precisely what to ask.

FROM THESE various incidents, a picture of Saltonstall as a gentle patrician emerges. Personally, he is unquestionably kind, generous and honest. On policy questions, Saltonstall and Kennedy disagreed only rarely while in the Senate, and usually cooperated on legislation affecting their state. Saltonstall worked closely with Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's top aide, while he was recovering from a back operation, and afterwards, Kennedy referred to the senior senator's dealings with "Senator Sorensen."

Overall, Salty is absorbing and amusing, but lacks a cohesive narrative framework. Even with Week's editing, the story jumps forward and back in time, and a sense of movement from one event to another is missing. But Saltonstall clearly has enjoyed a full career that brought him in contact with the masters of the power game. Even now, his former Senate staff people move easily through Washington's marbled halls. Elliot Richardson '43, Jonathan Moore, a Richardson aide and director of the Kennedy Institute of Politics, Tom Winship, editor of The Boston Globe, former Rep. F. Bradford Morse, State Senator William Saltonstall (his son), and the repentant Chuck Colson all worked for Salty in the Senate.

Lodge's book, covering a shorter period, and dealing with international issues in more substance than Saltonstall's, seems to be constructed mostly from letters, memos, and notes of meetings that remain in Lodge's files. As such, it may be more accurate, and is certainly written in finer detail. But the book, dwelling on the transition period between the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and, later on, Lodge's years at the United Nations, needs more definition of what material is important, and what is merely trivia. Aside from a brief conclusion exhorting the United Nations to do better, there is very little analysis of the conversations, memos or cables that Lodge reports.

AT THE SAME TIME, As It Was is not written with the same attention to color and style that Saltonstall and Weeks used in Salty. As such, it reads more like a State Department briefing paper, or perhaps one of H.R. Haldeman's "talking papers" than a memoir or autobiography. For historians of American diplomacy in the '50s and '60s, this kind of detailed reporting will be valuable, but its lack of unifying theme or humorous readability makes As It Was overall a less attractive book than Salty.

Other than superficial similarities of family, education and social position, the qualities that tie Lodge and Saltonstall together are selflessness, kindness, and the apparent lack of driving ambition that is often found in successful politicians. Lodge spent most of the 1952 campaign steering Eisenhower first to the Republican nomination and later to the White House; his loss to Kennedy is at least party attributable to that. Saltonstall, for his part, seems to have achieved his positions more by accident than by design, although he clearly enjoyed a good political fight. What characterized both their careers, moreover, was a genuinely patrician sense of duty. They had an obligation to serve. But that obligation was to the nation, and national security abroad, rather than to domestic welfare. Neither was cold-hearted about the poor, the black, or the unemployed, but they certainly did not lead any fights to remedy social or economic inequality.

Yankees and Harvard alumni do not dominate Massachusetts politics as much as they once did, but their families are still very much in evidence. Saltonstall says that his first loyalty was to his family but his second was to Harvard. He represented the tenth generation of Saltonstalls to go to the College; the twelfth generation is now in Winthrop House. The Saltonstalls, Lodges and Peabodys are now among us. The elder Saltonstalls and Lodges probably hope their families will continue a tradition of public service. But meanwhile the rest of us must wonder whether the same preoccupation with national security and neglect of other national priorities will characterize their careers.