Theodore H. White, In Awe of American Democracy, Practiced Political Journalism As Illusion, Myth-Making

In a course on American elections, I would include political campaign classics by Theodore H. White:

Making of the President 1960

Making of the President 1964,

Making of the President 1968 and

Making of the President 1972.

I’m glad to see new editions of these books (including as ebooks) and they are still required reading by students of politics and history.

White’s 1960 book was made into an award-winning documentary by David L. Wolper.

White portrayed American presidential campaigns as heroic quests of public servants in an ennobling democracy. While today’s cynical journalists, and far more cynical public, may consider White naïve and too close to his subjects, his books endure while scandal-mongering “tell-alls” tend to quickly fade into trivia or fall to the $1 discount shelves at bookstores. Yes, White’s techniques did raise questions about how protective a journalist should be of candidates and how much he inflated their images to make them appear wiser than ordinary mortals.

But his larger theme was that American political campaigns are or should be a world-wide model for democratic governance. The campaigns he covered were portrayed as a valiant crusade among self-sacrificing public servants to hear the voice of “the people,” who somehow embodied innate wisdom, no matter their education. After sacred ballots were cast, power transferred peacefully from adversaries to a president, who was given a “honeymoon” and the benefit of the doubt by opponents because they were all Americans who wanted what was best for their country.

Readers have to remember the context: White was writing during the Cold War, when the United States was thought to be in a world-wide battle with authoritarian communists of the Soviet Union and “Red” China.

These books make me nostalgic. If we could repair the bitter divisiveness of American politics, I wonder if American elections could once again inspire pride, and awe around the world. Or is that day long past?

Here White is introducing a 4.5 minute retrospective on the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

I read White’s books as a teenager and loved them. I now see them as conscious myth-making. He engaged in hero-worship of such figures as John F. Kennedy, Chiang Kai-shek, and Ambassador David Bruce. The last “Making of the President 1972” book came out in 1973 when President Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate crisis that would end his presidency. White gave Nixon the benefit of the doubt on Watergate and nearly everything else, which does not survive well in retrospect.

To retrieve his reputation for astute observations of politics with a historical perspective, White in 1976 published “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon.” The Nixon team, he wrote, “came to see politics as war without quarter, in which the White House was a command post where ordinary rules didn’t apply, where power could be used without restraint.”

White majored in Chinese history at Harvard, and covered China for Time magazine in the 1940s. His journalistic accounts of the Chinese revolution were greatly re-written before publication to align with the magazine’s propaganda. Yet White did become a great American patriot and nationalist, as most exemplified by his essay, The American Idea, which is still taught in colleges, as Professor Tim McGee does in this lecture, which includes audio clips of the essay.

White also wrote In Search of History: A Personal Adventure, published in 1978, which became a bestseller. White evolved into a classic FDR New Deal Liberal, but as one critic observed, he was not a dogmatist and that does not prevent him from making intelligent and interesting observations that modern audiences can relate to. The reviews on Goodreads are mixed, but still positive.

What Should Our China Policy Be? 1978

In Theodore H. White and Journalism As Illusion, Joyce Hoffman wrote that White’s “personal ideology undermined professional objectivity.” He self-censored information embarrassing to his subjects to portray them as heroes, she alleged.

In 2010, American historian Hal Brands in Presidential Studies Quarterly skewered White as he reviewed four more recent accounts of the 1960 presidential election. Noting that White’s book “has long dominated historical memory of the 1960 election,” he pointed out that the revered journalist “attached himself to” JFK’s campaign rather than Nixon’s, spending twice as much time with the Kennedys, their aides and allies, reporting far more sympathetically on their perspectives. White portrayed the election as a stark choice between the “virtuous, liberal Kennedy” and the “morally ambiguous Nixon.”

White’s depiction “did mild violence to history, but it was a godsend to historians. You cannot have revisionism without orthodoxy, and nothing clears the ground for the former like an unbalanced — yet popular — early account,” Brand wrote, citing author Gary Donaldson’s observation that White was “star-struck by the Kennedys.”

But aren’t all leading political journalists myth-makers? They obviously don’t and can’t have complete access to all knowledge about a public figure. Only historians, decades after a person has died, or at least left the public scene, can begin to take his full, true measure and significance in the context of his times.

Isn’t almost all political journalism, produced quickly on deadline and packaged for specific audiences, illusion to some extent?

Citations for further reading assessing Theodore White’s impact are cited on his Wikipedia page.

Mythology and Archetypes Inform Our Historical Understanding

Fresh Relevance for ‘What It Takes’, A Classic on American Politics, Exhibiting Empathy for Politicians, including a seminal (short) biography of Joe Biden.

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