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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.