- Historic Sites
An Interview With Theodore H. White
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
I’m afraid the answer has to sound like a cliché. The common thread is the druglike effect of power. Power transforms people. Some of the sweetest and most decent humans I’ve known, once they’ve got the power in their hands, become bastards, transformed in spirit and personality. Take the Chinese communists—you would have had to see them in their guerrilla days, hungry, in straw sandals, giving up their lives to fight the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Yet eventually they ate each other up, they tormented each other, they became killers. I’ve seen the same thing elsewhere. The British Labor party had wonderful people when I first knew them; now their leaders have become doctrinaire, arrogant.
How do you deal with the problem of getting to know candidates and would-be candidates as personal friends. Doesn’t it soften your critical edge?
It’s an inescapable problem. You’ve got your choice with a candidate—either not talk to the guy at all, not knowing what his tics and tempers are like, so you write about him from the outside, or seek his friendship, and then a certain kind of empathy builds up. And mind you, anyone who becomes President is like a beauty queen who has survived fifty local contests. They’re all charming, they all want to charm you. They’re irresistible. That includes Richard Nixon. When he wanted to attract you he could. Then when it comes time to write a book like Breach of Faith , you have to cut his throat, and it’s tough.
I’ve met people who, to this day, entrance me. Kennedy did; Jean Monnet did; Stilwell did. I was devoted to Chou En-lai, even after I realized he was a ruthless communist tyrant. He took me in when I was a free-lance kid and the only person I could interview was this shabby communist in a shabby headquarters, and he took a great deal of interest in teaching me all the ins and outs of Chinese politics. I’ll be grateful forever for the kindness, even though he turned out to be one of those who are seized by power.
It’s a problem I’ve found no solution to; I do the best I can.
Where do you draw the line between journalism and history?
Journalists are the handmaidens of history. We offer up our reportage and then, twenty years later, when time has burned off all the details, the historians say what was important and what was not. Thucydides was the first historian, but he was first of all a journalist. He says—I paraphrase from memory- “I’ve written about these battles, in most of which I’ve participated myself, and I’ve written down the speeches as I heard them, and when I was not present I have written down what I think they would have said had I been there. ”
What other big cultural changes do you see in America?
The dissolution of communities, thanks to the auto, television, suburbia. Hubert Humphrey told me in an interview before he died that the biggest emotional problem today was loneliness. There are more lonely Americans today than ever before; old people in barracks for the aged, young people in barracks for singles.
There’s also the recrudescence of a religious thrust in American life: a number of former divinity students like Gary Hart or David Stockman in politics now, Jimmy Carter’s deeprooted Christianity, the Moral Majority. I don’t try to date it in the book, just glance at it.
Can you summarize what you’ve done in your campaign books overall?
I’ve attempted to pin episodes against the flow of history. I’ve seen so many episodes, known so many men … which are important? Can you catch that particular episode that shows what has gone before, what’s going to happen next? I’ve tried to show all of these guys scissored, trapped, squeezed by forces of history that they themselves don’t comprehend—how they were hit by these forces as they paraded across the scene, how they handled them, and how the American people made their judgment.