In 1985 in New York I was asked, well told really, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” by the distinguished historian and chronicler of the Kennedys, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This occurred at an otherwise very pleasant dinner party in the course of a debate-turning-into-a-quarrel between Schlesinger and me over the nomination of Edwin Meese III to be attorney general.
Schlesinger was waxing indignant over the alleged sins of Ed Meese which made him spectacularly unfit to be attorney general and I was arguing that Meese was innocent of those sins and that, even if he had occasionally jaywalked, Democrat attorneys general had committed the same sins and far worse.
It was a standard row at many dinner parties that season, but this time it wasn’t really a fair fight. I had arrived at the party hot from the task of writing a New York Post editorial on the Meese nomination that took the unfashionable pro-Meese position whereas Schlesinger was simply sounding off in the confident expectation that everyone at the party would agree with him.
I was stuffed to the gills with arguments and precedents; he was trotting out the conventional clichés of local liberalism. And in a clash between the conventional wisdom and an unexpected challenge to it, the smart way to bet is on the challenger because he’s the one who knows the other side’s arguments.
At any rate it wasn’t going well for Arthur. He was losing to some nobody from a New York tabloid. He became increasingly irritated until, eventually, he burst out with the fatal words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?”
A great hush at once descended on the room. It really did. For about fifteen seconds (though it seemed more like an hour) no one said a word. Then another distinguished historian, who was also a former U.S. ambassador, said quietly: “Really, Arthur, I think that goes too far.” This gentlemanly intervention came from a moderate Democrat who probably agreed with Schlesinger on the substance of the argument, and it was promptly echoed by most of the other diners (of mixed but mainly Democrat partisan loyalties) around the table.
“Yes, really . . . Arthur, that’s too bad of you. . . please re-consider.” And so on. For the moment, though, Arthur glowered and stood firm. And sulky.
As best I now recall, I was surprised by the remark but slightly less indignant than my defenders. Schlesinger and I had been in combat only seconds before; I was buoyed up by the fact that I seemed to be scoring good points; and I expected some sort of angry riposte — just not that one.
Besides, anyone who takes part in serious debate know that no one — no one! — is proof against losing his temper. In a famous parliamentary exchange during the Boer War, David Lloyd George from the Opposition benches listed all the Boer casualties claimed by the British Army and pointed out that they added up to more people than the entire Boer nation, men, women, and children. Arthur Balfour, then a cabinet minister, later prime minister, was a famously witty politician, usually detached from partisan anger. His great work was titled A Defense of Philosophic Doubt. But Lloyd George’s sally aroused him to the point that he cast doubt and philosophy aside, rose from the front bench, shook his fist at Lloyd George, and shouted “Cad!”
By comparison I got off pretty easily.
I was meanwhile trying to think of some clever retort that also would make light of the matter. Since I actually come from Liverpool, I wondered if I might say: “Did you say the same thing to John Lennon?” But that struck me as a weak joke requiring a long prior explanation and so no use at all. Besides, no one there knew I was a Liverpudlian. Schlesinger was almost certainly thinking not of Liverpool when he struck the blow but of Fleet Street, then regarded by New York liberals as a den of iniquity from which tabloid pirates had conquered and transformed their beloved liberal Post.
Also, it’s one thing to be told to go back where you came from by some drunk in a bar, but quite another when the distinguished liberal chronicler of the Kennedys, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., says the same. Then, it has a comic side. It’s sort of funny, and distinguished, and therefore memorable, the stuff of later anecdotes at other fashionable dinner parties. It wasn’t all downside.
While my dinner-party companions were still uttering soft impeachments to the effect that Arthur should apologize, therefore, I murmured things like “not at all,” “It’s not important,” “I really don’t think an apology is called for,” and “let’s all just get along.” In the face of these appeals from his fellow liberals and my display of nobility, Arthur eventually caved and apologized. I said something appropriately magnanimous, and we parted almost friends.
Was Arthur’s remark racist? Of course not, unless you regard the Liverpool Irish as a different race — and not even then really. Was it snobbish? Well, that’s a harder question. I think it was intellectually snobbish, a kind of assertion of superiority by Harvard over Fleet Street, but that must be put in the context that he was losing an argument he thought he should be winning. He reached desperately for an undoubted symbol of his authority and came up with the wrong one: He was an American and I wasn’t and so what did I know? Was that nativist? I don’t (and didn’t) think so, and I wouldn’t have minded much if it had been. But he probably feared it was immediately after saying it. That was why he was so angry with himself and reluctant to say “Sorry, I screwed up.”
None of those hundred-dollar-word explanations is needed. The problem with what Arthur Schlesinger said was that it was crass. He could have come up with a better riposte to me if he had paused and thought about it. But he acted on impulse.
And that’s the problem with President Trump’s remark about the four congressional ladies now know as the “Squad.” He wanted to point out that they express hostility to America and its institutions almost every time they talk on such matters. Sure, they claim to want to make America a better country, but their picture of its history and present is one of unrelieved racism, oppression, and shame. And everything they have so far proposed would make it worse.
He could have said: “I can’t tell the Squad to go back where they came from — because for 75 percent of them, that’s America even if they think it’s hell. But I can tell them they should go where they want to take America — because that’s a real hell called Venezuela. And then they’ll learn there’s a difference.” Instead Trump acted on impulse and said something crass.
Unfortunately, the two main flaws in the Trump presidency are acting on impulse and saying crass things. They outweigh the great deal that is sensible and sound in his policies. And they could lose him the next election to a Democrat party under the sway of the Squad.
And that would be very different from a 1980s liberal dinner party.