Theodore H. White has become the poet laureate of American presidential campaigns. The occupational hazard of poets laureate, judging by the experience of royal courts, is a declining ratio of flattery to poetry. White’s first book in this genre, The Making of the President: 1960, which I have just read for the first time, holds up amazingly well. It is written with unflagging narrative tension and is full of rewarding insights; I think it will last as a minor masterpiece of political reporting. Its successor, The Making of the President: 1964, is on a lower level. The wonder and zest of the first often decline into a schoolgirlish gushiness in the second. The first is muscular, the second mawkish.
Looking back into the 1960 volume, one can see the faults of the second prefigured. Even in the earlier volume, White sometimes laid his paeans on a little profusely. “To a Rockefeller,” he wrote, on a favorite subject, “all things are possible. This is a family…that examines a rotting tenement area…and begins there to realize such a dream as the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, designed to be the most fantastic monument of man’s spirit since Athens.” Already in the first book White showed himself almost incapable of saying a harsh word about anyone and prepared to scatter certificates of genius wholesale. Senator Symington, whom the Washington press corps had long regarded as a leading lightweight, was pictured as a human IBM machine. “Over each subject,” White wrote of a long lunch with Symington, “the same executive mind cut with the same bold stroke of action.” A writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone.
These occasional patches of overly warm fellowship in the first book spread out into marshes of goo in the second. As we near the climax of The Making of the President: 1964, White tells us that “Abundance and Peace” were the legacies Kennedy left Johnson. Then White takes off. “It is as if Kennedy, a younger Moses, had led an elderly Joshua to the height of Mount Nebo,” White writes, “and there shown him the promised land which he himself would never enter but which Joshua would make his own.” This schmaltz should go far to heal the wounds left by the unfortunate fact that the only candidate treated just a little roughly in the book on the 1960 campaign turned out to be the President in the 1964. Even Nixon was handled tenderly in the first. “If Nixon won his first major campaign [against Helen Gahagan Douglas] as a ‘Red-baiter,’ ” White explained, in a gem of apologetics, “it was because that was the ethos of the time and place where he campaigned.” This was perhaps the highest point ever reached in White’s determined effort to love every candidate. But White faltered a little with Lyndon Johnson: “…essentially provincial…’cornball’…the Senate has become almost a monomania with him,” can be sifted out from amid the compliments and circumlocations in which they were encased.
In the 1964 book White allows himself only two directly and strongly disapproving remarks. He calls Dirksen’s speech nominating Goldwater “the most tasteless” ever made and he terms Johnson’s acceptance “the poorest he made in the campaign.” But he hastens to soften the blow by turning it into a compliment. He says the acceptance speech was “a consensus of the worst thinking of the best thinkers” at the White House—Willard Wirtz, Richard Goodwin, McGeorge Bundy, Horace Busby, and Bill Moyers are named—and “not half so good as the speeches he could and later did deliver of his own composition.” This picture of Johnson writing his own speeches, like another Lincoln, and outdoing his own best ghost-writers in the process, is so Texas-size a helping of flattery as to distract attention from the less satisfactory arithmetic.* If this wasn’t enough to win White admission into LBJ’s inner sanctum, it was more than earned early in the book by the resounding osculation, “as he [Johnson] slept, it could well be stated that no man would ever waken to his first full day of the Presidency of the United States better educated in the meaning of that office, better trained in its mechanics, more artistically interested in its execution than Lyndon Baines Johnson.” The cult of personality hasn’t been so assiduously cultivated since Stalin’s heydey, except in Peking where Mao, too, likes to be hailed as a universal genius. This indicates hopefully that we are already One World, at least when it comes to reassuring touchy rulers.
White is a genuinely, an overwhelmingly, friendly man. The eye of kindness may often see what the critical, by its very relentlessness, misses. But friendliness is not the only reason for the basic approach of White’s books on the presidential campaigns. This is his second; he is under contract to do one every four years until 1980. Ready access to the candidates, and the inside information which give the books much of their value and interest, are obtainable only if the candidates feel that they will be handled gently, and not seen through a harsh, ironic, or maverick eye. White’s journalistic bedside manner is an important stock in trade. No one could feel a candidate’s pulse more sympathetically. For the same reason he shies away from too close an examination of the issues, and focuses attention on political techniques. To be able to write these books, and to get them serialized in Life magazine, White had to join the Establishment and to be circumspect about the deeper insights of which he is capable. He has moved a long way from his first book, Thunder Out of China, which appeared in 1946 just before the cold war began and angered Chiang Kai-shek. Its tone of indignation has now gone out of fashion. In his new book he can write of the Tonkin Bay reprisal raids in August, 1964, that “The deft response of American planes to the jabbing of North Vietnam’s torpedo boats had been carried out with the nicest balance between boldness and precision.” What was bold about an attack by the world’s greatest naval power on a mosquito boat flotilla? What was precise about the heavy reprisals we took for two attacks so slight that we had great difficulty proving they had actually occurred? Was this not, instead, a warning that under fire, real, suspected, or feigned, Johnson, despite all his campaign talk about Isaiah, would shoot from the hip?
The last two American presidential campaigns could be seen as ironic comedy. White treats them as soap opera. In his Foreword to the 1964 volume, White begins by saying that every man who writes of politics “shapes unknowingly in his mind some fanciful metaphor to embrace all the wild, apparently erratic events and personalities in the process he tries to describe.” He says that for him the image that has taken shape is “of an immense journey—the panorama of an endless wagon train.” Unconsciously he picked his metaphor from a TV Western. The truth with which a Mark Twain or a Will Rogers would have begun is barely touched on in White’s voluminous pages. “Rarely in American history,” he admitted in the first book, “has there been a political campaign that discussed issues less or clarified them less.” But this was no more than a discreet aside. In his new book White says that in 1960 either Nixon or Kennedy could have campaigned under the other’s chief slogan: “Nixon could easily have bannered his campaign with ‘Let’s Get America Moving Again’ and Kennedy could easily have accepted ‘Keep the Peace Without Surrender.’ ” White says it was “an inner music of the soul which separated them.” He feels that in 1964 on the contrary, “The gap between Johnson and Goldwater was total. Though as masculine Southwest types they used the same language, the same profanities, shared the same drinking style, indulged in the same homespun metaphors, these similarities were meaningless when compared to the philosophies that separated them.” White, like many of us, was taken in. Events since about the time his book must have gone to press in February have changed the picture drastically. Since the escalation of the war in North Vietnam, the landing of the Marines in Santo Domingo, and Johnson’s cold speech on the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations, the inner music of Johnson’s soul begins to sound astonishingly like Goldwater’s. In foreign affairs, Johnson has come to seem an echo, not a choice.
White is a master of the courtly circumlocution. In his first book, discussing how Nixon managed to make himself distrusted by both Southern white and Northern Negro, White could write, “This is one of Nixon’s characteristic and fatal flaws—that he presents too often a split image.” In plain language, it would be said that Nixon was two-faced. In this new book, writing of Rockefeller, White says, “His enemies called him, quite simply, the most ruthless man in politics. But what in other men would be simply arrogance was in Rockefeller the direct and abrupt expression of motives which, since he knew them to be good, he expected all other men to accept as good also.” Even after this explanation, it is hard to see how arrogance in a Rockefeller differs from arrogance in other men. Amid the pages of sentimentalizing White devotes to Goldwater, it is refreshing to come across the plain statement from an unnamed Republican in the stop-Goldwater camp, “What we were looking for was something that would put the nation and the rank and file of the Party on the alert to the fact that our leading candidate was impetuous, irresponsible and slightly stupid.”
A good example of White’s technique is in the pages he devotes to Johnson’s vanity, no small matter. White says “This was not a vanity of person so much as an obsession with self…” This leaves me a little glassy-eyed: how does one distinguish vanity from obsession with self? Then he goes on to say “and an obsession with self and self-performance so deep as to recall all the insecurities and awkwardnesses he had first brought with him to Washington from the hardship and reaching of his past.” This romanticizes the picture, down to that touch about the “reaching” of his past, a phrase which evokes an almost Pre-Raphaelite haze of yearning, until one remembers that other kind of “reaching” brought to light in the Bobby Baker case. A few sentences later Johnson is described as “one of the best, most vigorous and earthiest conversationalists of the younger thinkers who were then remaking America.” I knew the Brain Trust crowd in those days; this is the first time I have ever heard Johnson mentioned as one of those “younger thinkers.” Anyway it soon appears that even in those days he was not so much a conversationalist as a monologist; for “when the conversation passed to someone else” he would “droop his head” and doze off.
After all this flattery, White offers one of those revealing reportorial nuggets he so often digs up. It appears that a correspondent who had known Johnson well before the war was visiting in Sam Rayburn’s office after the war when Lyndon Johnson dropped in. After Johnson left, the correspondent observed, according to White, how Johnson had changed. “Mr. Rayburn said, ‘Lyndon ain’t been the same since he started buying two hundred dollar suits.’ ” There follow accounts of Johnson’s anger because an old friend had written about the huge gold cuff links he wore: of how, the night after Kennedy’s funeral, Walter Jenkins telephoned State to make sure that in a taped record of an international reception to be held that night the camera took only Johnson’s left profile; and of a tantrum with government press officers because they had not been getting him on the front pages enough. A few pages later White is describing Johnson as “performing flawlessly as President, though less well as a human being.” Flattery and revelation follow each other almost contrapuntally.
Yet the skillful courtier in White never swallows the superlative reporter. “When he thought of America,” White says of Johnson in one of his sharpest observations, “he thought of it either in primitive terms of Fourth-of-July patriotism or else as groups of people, forces, individuals, leaders, lobbies, pressures that he had spent his life in intermeshing. He was ill at ease with the broad phraseologies, purposes and meanings of civilization.” This, though White does not say so, is the portrait of an intellectually quite limited man. It raises the question of whether the kind of man most likely to become President is really best qualified for the job. To become President today requires money, gobs of it, either one’s own or that of rich friends; it requires, as does success in any other calling, abnormal energy, drive, and concentration; it requires shrewdness in manipulating men, and it requires luck. These qualities are not necessarily those which make for success in the Presidency itself, where unprecedented power and unprecedented circumstance may call for fresh thought and a willingness to risk popularity in order to lead in new directions.
The biggest missing ingredient in Johnson is magnanimity. The man whose lineaments appear in White’s book is not a very engaging person after all the flattery is peeled away. The cruelty to those closest to him, hired help and faithful aides alike, when coupled with his enormous vanity, recalls Saint-Simon’s memoirs of Louis XIV, whom Johnson sometimes resembles, though not in elegance of style. Like Louis, Johnson feels that he is the State. He shows the same exhausting and sometimes ludicrous passion for detail. How Louis would have loved to “bug” the humiliation of a younger rival as Johnson did in tape-recording the conversation in which, with a delicious sadism, he told Bobby Kennedy that “he wasn’t going to ask him to run for Vice President with him this time.” The White House, like Versailles, is also reputed to have a circle of petty informers like those who served Le Grand Monarque—“this jealous and despotic master [as Saint-Simon described him] who wanted to command and conduct everything himself and who made up for the contempt in which he was held abroad by doubling the terror through which he ruled at home.” Let us hope the latter part of this description does not prove prophetic.
August 5, 1965