Books

The errors of his ways

IN SEARCH OF HISTORY: A Personal Adventure by Theodore H. White

BARBARA AMIEL September 4 1978
Books

The errors of his ways

IN SEARCH OF HISTORY: A Personal Adventure by Theodore H. White

BARBARA AMIEL September 4 1978

The errors of his ways

Books

IN SEARCH OF HISTORY: A Personal Adventure by Theodore H. White

(Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., $15.95)

At 63 he looks like a worried Jewish leprechaun wondering if, after all, Moses and St. Patrick are on his side. A crisis of faith has overwhelmed Boston-born Theodore White and he lays out his dilemma in the feisty, detail-crammed prose of In Search of History

After a dozen books, including the bestselling series The Making of the President (1960, ’64, ’68, ’72), White finds himself smitten by the uncomfortable suspicion that he really doesn’t comprehend the ideas beneath his account of American politics and history. Somewhere, he suspects, there must be more to it all than his exquisitely textured account of such moments as the staging of “Negro Night” at JFK’s home with NAACP leaders in one room, discreetly hidden from the rival black leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in another one. Agonizes White, speaking of himself in the third person: “No piling up of more reportorial facts, no teasing anecdote, no embracing concept, could hide from him [White] what was wrong: his old ideas no longer stretched over the real world as he saw and sensed it to be.”

Better late than never. White is a potent example of the shift in interests of cultivated men. Only a century ago, society’s first-rate minds automatically chose the arts and humanities for nourishment. The tragedy of the 20th century is the abandonment of the humanities to the secondraters: today the mentally lean go into the sciences where quantum physics stretch the imagination far more than the pseudosciences of psycho-history or Living Literature courses. Journalism, which traditionally draws its practitioners from the arts, has been a casualty of this process and it is a casualty of colossal significance.

White’s influential career included a stint as Time correspondent in China and roving reporter during European post-war reconstruction. By his own admission the “personalities” of interviewees often swayed his loyalties more than the content of their ideas. The stiff Chiang Kai-shek suffered in comparison to the engagingly accessible Chou En-lai. The Kennedy aura so mesmerized White that he finds no difficulty in embracing JFK’s dedication to the principle of Deficit Budgeting which White describes as “The most successful formula since scholars had translated Einstein’s E=mc2 into Hiroshima.” (Ironically, he fails to note the similarity in devastation.) White seems unable to move beyond personality to judgment based on abstract thought: and he celebrates “the free-trad-

ing society” but cannot appreciate, for example, that it was his idol Roosevelt with his New Deal who more than anyone else legitimized the interference of the state in human affairs and the trading society, or that it was Roosevelt who, after spilling much American blood (rightly) to get rid of the Nazis, handed over half the world to their Communist equivalent.

White’s saving grace, apart from his superb, atmospheric writing, is his engag-

ing ability to change his mind. Still, after close examination of In Search of History it seems a toss-up whether the flexible mind of Teddy White is open—or simply blank. Much as one admires White’s honesty in going public about his errors and misgivings, one has some reluctance about handing out medals for discovering the obvious.

BARBARA AMIEL