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Making History

July 2024
5min read

An Interview With Theodore H. White

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?

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.

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