In Search of History: A Personal Adventure
Make-Believe Presidents: Illusions of Power from McKinley to Carter
They used, I am told, to have a phrase over at Life magazine known as “winning the lunch.” Life was a very lunchy outfit, to judge from the number of Henry Luce anecdotes that seem to feature that meal, and Life reporter Theodore White’s In Search of History can be read as a further elaboration on the phrase. It is a tale of lunches won, lost, and drawn, until an alternative title In Search of the Tab occurred fleetingly to this reader, though it lacks White’s breadth of vision.
Not real lunches of course, but drinks and dinners and cordial exchanges of views; it applies here to any situation where one or more buttons are undone. White worked for the Personality Press and the modus operandi seemed to be to catch top people in expansive moments and deduce history from that.
White’s lunchmanship was obviously splendid, and even extended to his own colleagues, who have praised his book in terms suitable to bread and butter letters. All hands are fairly bursting to cut the formalities and call him Teddy. In most cases, reviewing the other reviews is both lazy and unfair, but with White it is part of the story, because whatever tactics won Richard Rovere were also deployed against Jean Monnet and Chiang Kai-shek; the reporter as crony, the fellow who came to dinner last night and may return at any moment.
Curiously, though, this heavily garlanded book is at heart a work of self-abnegation. White is not now sure whether history can be found so preeminently among the top people, and he worries the question in old-fashioned Time-Life style. Instead of being allowed to conclude in late adolescence, as English schoolboys used to be, that history is both an art and a science and everything else as well, Time-thinkers like White were condemned to pursue the abstract question forever, like German lepidopterists. And his pages on whether history is caused by personalities or events, or personalities and events, advances the old schoolboy discussion not one inch.
What it does do, though, is clarify White’s own achievement. Because he is at his best when he is at his least a priori. He is not a great philosopher of history (and this is one field it is not worth entering at all if you’re not great), but he was a bit of an educational Wunderkind and this combined with Henry Luce’s urge to put out a paper that every college graduate would read led him down the rosy path of the middle-brow bull session. The most stirring moment in the book is when he decides spunkily to trust his own eye-sight in China, and write precisely what he sees, and never mind what he expects to see. And not far behind it is his modified version of the same approach to the early days of the Marshall Plan.
He doesn’t really get into his Making of the President series, except to suggest that he abandoned it because it wasn’t working any more. And this brings up a possible defect of the journalistic lunchman: that he does his best work abroad where, when the book is finished, he doesn’t have to see the people again. At home one feels that, like James Reston, White is closer to his sources than he is to his readers, to the point of enfeeblement.
And even in the China days the pull was there. He was absolutely starry-eyed over Chiang Kai-shek and his set, but equally and boyishly stunned by Chou En-lai. His capacity for being bowled over was and is gargantuan, and it is probably significant that Thunder Out of China, his most important book, was written safe and sound in New York where these tumultuous characters could rock him no more.
He also admits with admirable candor that even in the raggedy China of the Thirties he developed a taste for high living and lots of money, and this can affect one’s philosophy of history in no time. Time-Life had taken a boy from the lower depths of immigrant Boston, via Harvard where he felt like an outsider, and given him one of the juiciest journalistic plums in Asia with perquisites to match and all this at the age of twenty-four. It was by some small triumph of will that he shook himself loose from his hotel and the Generalissimo’s company to visit the villages and report that his boss was wrong about them. That he backed off later and did noncontroversial stuff for Time for a while is no disgrace, although it may cause a slight dyspepsia within himself. Nobody else was asking him to write about China. Luce’s interest in that country was not shared by the American press at large, which may be why it proved so influential. White very scrupulously does not paint himself as a hero. Later he allowed a small McCarthyite scare to modify his left-wing sentiments, and there’s no doubt that Mr. Nixon modified him even more. The man who told the truth about China could live off that for quite a while.
It is interesting, though, that he was so brave under Luce and so comparatively circumspect under himself. It is as if, as personal representative for Teddy White, he has to be more careful. He is even careful about Luce, who comes through as very fair and gentlemanly. White was shocked when Harry exploded over Thunder Out of China (complaining that his reporters were always using Time to aggrandize themselves), as if Luce had seemed like the kind of guy who would go along. And, indeed, Luce did respect writers who talked back, although it might not always seem like the best policy to them.
There was something rather courtly and even touching about this particular duel. Luce and White both loved China and hence each other. As presented here, Luce’s views were far from irrational, and White’s opposition was based as much on hunch as on hard information (if there ever was such a thing in China). The Kuomintang did present a dazzling surface, which White compares to a glittering switchboard with all the connections missing. Chiang and his colleagues had made the age-old mistake of thinking that if they christianized sufficiently the Christians would save them; and Luce was simply holding up his end of the bargain.
For all the power shifts White may have seen in the villages and countryside, Luce’s basic miscalculation concerned America and what it would or could do in Asia. Granting the fitful nature of that, the villages were indeed crucial, and White was right. But he doesn’t gloat about it. His unknowable friend History might have turned out differently. This was the closest he ever got to it, and at that range, it’s as chaotic as water under a microscope.
It could fairly be said that after China, White’s lunching got the upper hand. His account of the Marshall Plan and European Recovery is very much a matter of personalities (Monnet and Adenauer especially), as if Time had had the last word, and made him a Time writer in perpetuity. But I think also that his passions had been roused in China in a way that cannot be duplicated: and if not, why not lunch? Especially if you find yourself in Paris, as White did in the Forties. The Marshall Plan could be researched at table better than most things, and this is not meant as derisively as it sounds. It was a Peter Ustinov period, and again White was very good at it: sufficiently cosmopolitan, intellectually equipped beyond his fellows and bubbling with the majestic independence of an American in postwar Europe.
But in journalism you do tend to become what you write for, especially in the insidious matter of style. Timestyle had varying effects on its victims (it was not an unmixed disaster). Back-of-the-book writers like James Agee and Louis Kronenberger rode loose on it, and may even have gained something from the rattly-bang quality. Anyone with a sense of humor, like T.S. Mathews, seemed comparatively safe. But if White has any sense of humor at all, he keeps it under his hat. To batter his way up through Harvard and the world he needed vanity, and vanity displaces humor in precise ratio.
So he picked up the portentousness of Time with no safety valve of his own. And this works horrible tricks on his self-portrait. To place himself out there in History, he uses the third person, “White,” while for the inner man, he is “I” (or is it the other way around?). Now even if Norman Mailer’s elephantine joshing hadn’t reduced the third person to a hopeless gag, it would still be a treacherous convention for the text-book reason that it’s so far removed from normal speech. Thus White writing about “White” sounds almost as funny as White talking about “White” would be (as in “White was puzzled that year,” said White). Good enough for General de Gaulle, but precious few others.
This has a particularly sad effect on a writer so given to grandiloquence anyway. Usually a chap confessing his weaknesses seems attractive at least for the moment. But the built-in self-importance of White’s method counteracts this. What might have been an impressive note of elegiac self-disappointment comes perilously close to a conveyed sense that history has let him down badly and that he’s washing his hands of it. Ironically, he may have taken sanctuary in the third person because he’s not used to writing about himself, not gauging the effect. In fact, the message of the book is elegiac enough in itself. As he returns to his birthplace, a poor but proud section of Boston, and finds it an incoherent slum, White realizes that all the top people laid end to end have done nothing to prevent this. In fact they might have been as surprised by it as Teddy was.
The reader reflecting right along with White may wonder if the man who brought us such important news from China and Europe, only to wind up giving us, at excruciating length, the shell-shocked babblings of Jackie Kennedy about Camelot, had not been away from the villages a bit too long himself.
If White is a specimen of what used to be called “gee whiz” journalism, its opposite number, “aw nuts” journalism, is handsomely represented by Nicholas von Hoffman’s Make-Believe Presidents: Illusions of Power from McKinley to Carter. Even the title is ostentatiously unimpressed by all the things that wow White. If White is a distillation of Time-Life, von Hoffman is a pure product of freelance column writing, i.e., a peddler of surprises. Allow von Hoffman’s blue suede shoe in the door and he will show you something to knock your eyes out. The Grand Vizier of this school is the nonpareil Murray Kempton, who will flash open his bag of tricks to demonstrate, say, that Eisenhower was brilliant and Nixon saintly. The more plausible proposition that Ike was not as dumb as he looked, nor Nixon so scurvy, would be no fun at all. The columnist’s first duty (unless he works for the Times) is to entertain.
Where Kempton has an unbeatable edge over his competitors is in the thoroughness of his perversity. After a thousand or more Kempton columns I have no idea what the man will say next about anything. Not so von Hoffman. In the field of contrariness, there is an area of the obvious, the 180° turn, the banal surprise; and this von Hoffman slips toward in his lesser moments.
For instance, the theme of the book is presidential powerlessness since Wilson; so we know that our chief executives will be stripped of power to the bone. It will not be enough that Roosevelt’s NRA was thought up by a couple of businessmen; in von Hoffman, it turns out not to be Roosevelt’s NRA at all, but a consensus of what the power groups wanted at the time. Similarly, Roosevelt not only did not drag us into war; it seems there was a powerful anti-Japanese feeling throughout the US, entirely demonstrated here by some episodes in California (I’d have been more persuaded if they’d happened in Vermont). The rather obvious proposition that a president can’t start a war or a New Deal all by himself is heightened to a point where he can hardly do anything but back the winning horses of his day.
This dedication to “things are not what they seem—ever” weakens an otherwise useful little book, a book which is a perhaps conscious rebuttal to the Teddy. White school of Great Big Presidents. To sum up very briefly: von Hoffman suggests that Wilson’s mobilization of the country in 1917 gave us a clumsy prototype of the machine that presidents simply cannot handle any more. At the same time, Wilson’s extreme use of war powers and suspension of the Bill of Rights did in the organized American left for keeps, with a little help from the Russian Revolution and its hairy aftermath, thus setting up a consensus like unto a straitjacket which grown men for some reason fight to occupy every four years.
Once they are securely trussed, both institutionally and ideologically, the winners of these strange contests proceed immediately to be blamed for everything that goes wrong anywhere on the globe. As the world’s greatest country, we naturally have the world’s greatest leader. But the moment this titan stirs or groans in his entrapment we club him instantly. Watergate, to von Hoffman, is what happens to a president who thinks the presidency in itself is powerful and not simply powerful as a confluence of forces. Why didn’t Wall Street help the stumbling Nixon? Because he had alienated it with his campaign fund shakedowns. Where was the rest of the right? Pouting over détente. The left? Howling about Vietnam: but anyway, Nixon could not have won them even with a guaranteed income. “Nixon had a way of winning enemies without getting his enemies’ enemies for friends,” a knack that surely would have cost him power even in the Third Reich. Von Hoffman’s theory may be right, but it isn’t always necessary.
Anyhow, to continue with it: up to Nixon, there had been at least a myth of presidential power, and you can cash a myth for small amounts. But like George III, he backed his myth against real power; and like George, his successors have mostly stressed their personal niceness ever since.
To reach this point, von Hoffman has had to scoot fast over some thin ice, not always quite fast enough to my eye. For instance, he takes the near-unanimous passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to prove that Vietnam was not basically a presidential war, and cites as evidence a New York Times editorial of the day which clearly took the resolution to be a mere technicality. But if the proof proves anything, it is surely the opposite of what von Hoffman intends. If Tonkin was a technicality, then Johnson didn’t strictly need it. So if he had lost the vote, all that would have happened is that certain congressmen would have been accused of abandoning our boys who were already in the field, and Johnson would have had to find himself another incident, or announce that peace offers had been rejected or any damn thing he felt like. This is hardly an argument for a powerless presidency.
Here as elsewhere von Hoffman’s potential case may be stronger than the one he gets around to making. Business support for the New Deal and for World War II needs a bit of establishing, in view of appearances. But von Hoffman seems to consider one or two examples sufficient to bowl over everything we’ve ever believed. In short, he is a columnist, a provocateur, with a fresh firework every day and not too much in between. He makes it clear with phrases like “pissed off” and “old droopy jowls” (for Nixon) that he will not behave himself any differently in a book; there will be no throat-clearings or scholarly bet-hedging, just slam-bang and what do you make of that?
It somehow seems a more convincing way to write about recent American politics, which, whatever they are, are seldom epic, than Theodore White’s orotundities. Von Hoffman feels slangily at home, like a reporter with his hat tilted back, in every corner of the American century (the rest of the world barely exists here). And if one adjusts for the 180° turns, his debunking of presidential power is surely a step in the right direction. Getting mad at Jimmy Carter and getting mad at Teddy Roosevelt are different in scale to the nth power of the number of entrenched bureaucrats: though exactly what it is we ought to get mad at now is a task too Herculean for this snappy book, this agreeable columnist’s sample case. The final impression is that power now exists in stagnant equipoise among bureaucrats, capitalists, and labor leaders, and hence can be used by none of them. And this we call “the System.” Boo.
On second and gentler thoughts concerning White’s book, perhaps history has let Theodore White down. He had been writing about Teddy Roosevelt all along, and woke up in 1974 to find him gone, along with his press corps: brass bands were out, raspberries were in. The two books can complement each other in this weird way if you let them, and can be recommended without irony as matching studies in American political journalism, that simultaneous cause and effect of our moods. When White fails to write 1,000 pages about an election, as in 1976, you can bet that the voters are disenchanted too and won’t turn out, since voting for most people is approximately what writing a book is for White. When the von Hoffmans are riding high, as in the late Sixties, early Seventies, look for investigations of investigations, and much sniping at the System: peace marches, consumer revolts, and other furious attempts to roll the public into a ball to fling at the smug faces behind the window. And what causes White and von Hoffman?
There are two kinds of snobbery that particularly energize political reporting: that of the club member, and that of the lofty outsider who wouldn’t join the club if you paid him. Here you have vintage and theatrically entertaining specimens of each.