The Making of a Journalist: Theodore White Among the Men Who Would Be President
George McGovern would always claim that reading The Making of the President 1960 is what made him first want to run for President of the United States, which is kind of like saying that Hersey’s Hiroshima made you reckon you might like to tour Bikini Atoll. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how one might get caught up in the heat and the action of what Theodore White was describing here, back when this was the closest thing available to an account of a presidential election, both up-close and bird’s-eye. The much bigger question, now that the first installment of the Making of the President series–along with the three installments that followed in consecutive election cycles–has been re-released in paperback, is: does the book have anything to offer the reader today?
White didn’t originally intend for The Making of the President to become a series, and reading 1960 now leaves no doubt of the book’s origins as a stand-alone volume. He continually pulls back from the particular to consider the general, and writes often from the angle of What It All Means. His book is a meditation on ambition, electoral politics, the nature and impact of televised campaigning, and the day-to-day strategizing that occurs on the ground and in the air. Capturing the events of this frenzied process is a reportorial endeavor that White likens to “packaging fog. Each candidate separates [the months of campaigning] into mood phases, divided into rounds of his own imagining or reconstruction.”
Presidentitis is the name White has for the “condition of instantaneous ambition” that afflicts many political animals otherwise sane and contented, and this condition is White’s great subject–especially in this, the first book, wherein two of the most restless among the species are featured in the general election. Not every campaign that’s tough is also a close one down to the very end, but the race in 1960 was every bit as close as it was tough. This is the race for which John F. Kennedy first engaged–outside of Massachusetts–the services of Lou Harris, who, before he had the poll named after him, conducted prognostications in JFK’s employ. White is present, notebook open, for the initial stages of that revolution, and he’s present, too, for the equally awesome revolution in political bloodsport that television inaugurated. All those who believe Richard Nixon lost the TV debates simply because he didn’t put on any makeup need to read White’s thorough account of that multi-faceted debacle.
Reputed today to be a work of historical hagiography–a document of its time whose value lies primarily in what it tells us a Kennedy-smitten journalist was able to observe–The Making of the President 1960 is in fact a robust work of rigorous reportage that remains almost entirely interesting, if contextualized properly. Yes, White is the writer who would, just two years after its 1961 publication and at the request of Kennedy’s widow, introduce Camelot into the lexicon as a term denoting the Kennedy administration. And, yes, the tone here in The Making of the President comes dangerously close to fawning, particularly in the later chapters, after Kennedy has been elected to and assumed the Oval Office (a phrase which, as it happens, didn’t become a proper noun until White made it one, in this book). But this is also a trenchant, responsible work of historical analysis–not just in its soporific census data and voting-pattern preoccupations, but in the way White lucidly and fully sketches in his background, the pen-portraitist par excellence.
If it’s sometimes more history than you bargained for, you always read along anyway, secure that your good faith is invested wisely. We now know things about these men and this election that White, at the time, could not even have guessed at. But White had his eyes and ears wide open, and this book of its time is of our time too, if you’re at all capable at shivering in the presence of what you see when spying through history’s window: the White House, early 1961; Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, LBJ, and the rest of the crew, along with President Kennedy.
Here at this meeting [Kennedy] considered, not for the first time but for the decisive time, American response to the newest thrust of Communist pressure on the changing world–the movement of Communist guerillas over the jungles and ridges of Southeast Asia into the formless Kingdom of Laos. Could anything be done there? This was the ugliest of problems; and if his decisions were right the meeting would fade into history as unimportant; but if the decisions brought war, then this, indeed, was where the Americans chose war.
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