Making History

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It is hard to remember a decade when Theodore White has not been reporting on the sweep of current events in some best-selling book: Thunder Out of China in 1946, Fire in the Ashes (on Europe’s postwar resurgence) in 1953, and, since 1961, quadrennial narrations of our most exciting political drama, The Making of the President . There have also been two widely enjoyed novels, a great many articles, and an autobiography, In Search of History . Mr. White was completing his final “President” book when visited in his New York townhouse and lamented that he was “drowning in words” Words have been his comfort and his bread and butter since his days as an impecunious scholarship holder at the Boston Latin School and Harvard. He poured them out in a zestful, energetic stream that blended journalistic professionalism and a still-sustained excitement over his work.

 

Why are you ending the Making of the President series with 1980?

First of all, I am now the oldest man on the campaign trail and I can’t run as fast as I did twenty-five years ago. And being on the campaign trail is an obsolete thing because you’re only putting on scenarios for television. The campaign used to be “out there.” Now the playing field is a square about twenty inches wide.

But actually I announced when I began the series that I would end it in 1980. I thought that if I started with a book on the 1960 campaign and its background I’d actually have a quarter of a century of American politics on record if I went through to 1980. I was thrown off stride, as was the country, by the Nixon resignation in 1974. I simply had to do a book, Breach of Faith , on the first President thrown out of office, and I finished that too late for me to do the 1976 campaign. But I’ve returned to the original plan, to show twenty-five years of politics changing within the culture.

The full title of this book is America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President, 1956-1980 . If the cultural change in this country in those years had been accompanied by bloodshed or insurgency, we would have called it an American revolution.

Can you elaborate on that a bit?

I could pour it out for hours. We start with that great thing called civil rights—an upheaval long overdue and necessary. But no one knew that at the end of the road of liberating the black there was going to be affirmative action and goals and quotas. We couldn’t see that for every step forward we took, every reform we pushed through, we established a new government control, shoving us toward a vast centralization of American life. Then, in our efforts to give each group its share of privileges, we piled items into the national budget as if money weren’t money. Programs were passed as if they were vending machines; you put the money in and out comes the candy at the other end. Everybody’s getting his piece, but these promises stack up to more than we can fulfill, and this is partly—only partly, to be sure—why we get inflation.

Is inflation the biggest change?

It’s the most mean and corrosive factor in American life today. The speculators and the fast-buck people and hustlers are getting rich, but the average man who works for a salary is not making it any more. The Baby Ruth candy bar has shrunk to a comma; the house you used to buy in Levittown has shrunk to a cottage.

What other basic changes have there been?

The very real loss of American power. Eisenhower could send a couple of battalions of Marines to Lebanon in 1958, they were out in six weeks, and we’d pacified the Middle East. But this 1980 campaign opened on November 4, 1979, exactly one year before election day, with the seizure of American hostages in Iran, and we could do nothing but grovel to get them out. We cannot now defend all the perimeters and borders we’ve undertaken to guard.

What’s happened, speaking as a liberal, is that we have lived through a period when we liberals have been unable to distinguish between our triumphs and our failures.

Was the election of 1980, then, a reaction to liberal overreaching and subsequent failure?

It was an expression of frustration at the fact that Americans no longer control their own destiny. Politics is how ordinary Americans control their lives. You vote for Franklin Roosevelt, you cure the Depression. You vote for him again, he knocks off Hitler. You vote for Ike, you get peace. Now you have the sense that no matter how you vote, it doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. You can’t control where your child goes to school, you can’t control your taxes, you can’t get the hostages out of a barbarian country, you can’t control the price of hamburger. People voted against those beliefs of ours that didn’t work. In that sense an era came to an end.

You’ve covered revolution and civil war in China, the rebirth of Europe under the Marshall Plan, and a quarter-century of U.S. politics. Is there any common thread to those stories?