Politics and Reportage

The Making of the President, 1960.
by Theodore H. White.
Atheneum. 400 pp. $6.95.

An American Presidential election must be the ideal subject for a book. It is an exceedingly odd story, a unique blend of rationality, irrelevance, and folk myth—at best a catharsis, at worst a cathartic, usually a little of both. It is one of the central mysteries of the national existence, still little understood despite a generation of investigation within and without the universities. It combines excitement and importance, a rare combination, as the pages of any day’s newspaper so clearly testify. It ends, by definition, in a way guaranteed to please the majority of possible readers.

And of all people who might have been asked to write such a book, Theodore H. White was probably the ideal choice. He is a first-rate observer and skilled auditor; he organizes material admirably into a story line; he writes well; and he can resist the temptation to tell jokes. This sort of contemporary chronicle of crimes and follies can be written only by a man who is willing to take seriously such essentially ludicrous matters as Nixon’s mistaken choice of make-up for the first television debate. Mr. White believes in the reality of politicians and political power; this belief may be wrong, but it is widely shared at election time.

In The Making of the President, Mr. White picks up the declared candidates at the moment when their commitment became irrevocable, sees Kennedy through the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries and Nixon through the Rockefeller brouhaha, describes the conventions, runs down the physical facts of the campaigns, and ends with a visit to the new President in his new office. The book delivers the essentials promised in choice of subject and writer: it is a crackling good story, well told. In addition, it offers literally dozens of fascinating vignettes of personality at work: Nixon watching Kennedy’s acceptance speech and saying that “he could take this man on TV”; Stevenson at the convention being informed by Mayor Daley of Chicago that “he had no support, period”; Kennedy analyzing the world and its problems, with all the certainty of a journalist, during a casual conversation in an airplane over the mountain states. Yet the book fails to strip a single veil from the mystery of the American political process. Apart from the personal vignettes, Mr. White adds almost nothing to the story as it appeared, serially, in the newspapers during the first ten months of 1960. His very seriousness of attitude—his outsider’s respect for politics and politicians—has trapped him in conventionality.

The conventional view of an election is partisan, and Mr. White is aggressively pro-Kennedy. Nothing is allowed to tarnish the image. The candidate’s father, for example, influences delegates by “compelling persuasions,” which are never defined. Mr. White cannot bring himself to mention that Kennedy, Sr., is one of the nation’s largest realestate owners, and that most politicians make their living from real-property law or insurance. Truman, Mr. White reports, did not go to the Democratic convention: “By instinct, knowing that time had passed him by, he would not expose himself to this tide of youth.” Mr. White does not report, however, that Truman had denounced Kennedy the weekend before the convention. Walter Reuther, again, waited until Kennedy had convinced him on “civil rights and union rights,” but Mr. White offers no reasons why Reuther would need such convincing—neither Kennedy’s refusal to take a stand on McCarthy nor his bulldozer tactics with the Landrum-Griffin bill besmirch the pages of this book.

Having been so kind to Kennedy, Mr. White in fairness must try to be equally kind to others. His partisan approach has left Nixon’s back bristling with knife handles, but he finds the man very attractive—as a loser, and from a distance (Nixon refused to cooperate with Mr. White or to grant him an interview). Nixon, he writes, has been most unjustly attacked; his use of Red-baiting tactics against Helen Gahagan Douglas, for example, was merely “the ethos of the time and place where he campaigned.” Humphrey, Symington, Johnson, Stevenson, Rockefeller, et al.—all are admirable men, excellent men, honorable men. Only Kennedy is the best, which is why he won.

Mr. White’s story is always, conventionally, a contest between men; the only non-personal question of attitude or policy is one that pits “the past against the future” (which means, in effect, the loser against the winner). He never mentions the recession which was swinging into its trough—how deep a trough, no one knew—in the months of the campaign. He never seriously analyzes what the candidates or their supporters said, or why they said it. His history and economics are on a magazine level: the states are “each endowed with a separate sovereignty by the Constitution”; suburbia has only mortgages, no savings, or stock holdings or life insurance, or even equity in the mortgaged property.

On the Catholic question, which dominated the campaign, Mr. White is embarrassed. He would like to believe it unimportant; he points out that if only 38 per cent of the Protestants voted for Kennedy, as Gallup believes, they still formed more than half his 34,000,000 votes. Mr. White ignores the Kennedy-financed Simulmatics projection of the election, which, assuming that the only issues were party loyalty and religion, predicted in August a result almost exactly right, state by state. He mentions that the film of Kennedy’s appearance before the ministers in Houston was shown “over and over again in both Catholic and Protestant areas,” but he does not speculate on why the film was shown to Catholics—indeed, he argues that the Catholic vote “alone was not planned, nor was it mobilized.” During the Wisconsin primary, Mr. White had briefly abandoned his reportorial role and issued a statement warning the nation against religious bigotry. Now he is willing to argue that bigotry, though a factor (he presents some remarkable district-by-district statistics), was minor “in the long sight of history,” that Kennedy won because he had convinced the electorate that he and they “shared . . . a common conviction for the years ahead.” Uh-huh.

Mr. White’s conventionality is most distressing, however, in technical matters. His is the technique of the proscenium stage—illumination cast evenly, as though by footlights; the scene always set with furniture; the personae existing only here and now, while on the stage. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with the spinning out of the plot. The Making of the President was published at about the same time as Sybille Bedford’s The Faces of Justice, and comparison of the two leads the reader of both to wish that Mr. White had just a little of Mrs. Bedford’s audacity, her willingness to rely on the intuition of others. The outlines of the election were, after all, known to readers before they picked up this book. Here was a story that cried for illumination by flashes of lightning, for the bits that did not fit the mosaic, for the vectors of insight that passed clear through the frame of reference. Mr. White’s carpentry is excellent, and the frame he builds must be relatively satisfactory to most readers—including this one, who also voted for Kennedy. But revelations can come only from outside so commonplace a frame, and Mr. White ventures backstage only to interview the stars.

In criticizing the television debates, Mr. White aims his fire at the special demands of television, the need for the candidates to make immediate answers to all questions from the panel. His point may be valid, given the essentially forensic nature of the confrontation—though the notion that either man wished only to be honest in his answers may strike some readers as a little naive. Mr. White then moves on to say, “Every experienced newspaperman and inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question come after long pause, and that the longer the pause the more illuminating the thought that follows”—and this point is simply not true. When a respondent pauses before answering a question, he is either trying to con the interviewer or trying to phrase an answer in such a way that the interviewer will be able to fit it neatly into his own scheme. The really valuable replies to questions in an interviewing situation come when the interviewer is “misunderstood”—that is, when his question means one thing to him and something else to the respondent. An answer slaps out, revealing that the world is something other than what the interviewer believed, that there is another viewpoint, another frame of reference, with which he has never before made contact. At these times, the interviewer learns.

The great frustration of writing for newspapers or magazines is the relative scarcity of opportunities to use such unconventional learning. It takes a great deal of space to give a reader the mass of background he requires if he is to grasp the subtleties of reference which make differences of opinion something more than horse races. This is why the newspapers and news magazines are essentially so uninformative, why they seem so inaccurate to people who have personal knowledge of the matters under discussion. The Making of the President, written under deadline pressure by a man who supped for many years, one is forced to recall, at the tables of Time, reads too much like a newspaper or a news magazine. It fails to secure any of the victories over cant and convention made possible by the length of a book and the length of time a man can take to write a book.

Such criticisms must be seen, of course, in context: if this book were the work of a beginning political journalist from a Midwestern newspaper, it would be a remarkable accomplishment, an exercise of skill to set its author near the top of his trade. Mr. White is already at the top. We had reason to hope that in dealing with so splendid a subject, he would seek to make a contribution to enlarge our understanding of our own rites and customs. Instead, he has given us some evenings’ entertainment. As reading matter, the book deserves its success; but we deserved something more durable from Mr. White.



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