The Knack

The Making of the President:1964

by Theodore H. White
Atheneum, 431 pp., $6.95

Lyndon Johnson and Theodore White
Lyndon Johnson and Theodore White; drawing by David Levine

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:…

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