The Making of Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960."

By Miller, John E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Making of Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960."


Miller, John E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The publication in July 1961 of The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White's path-breaking account of the 1960 presidential election, instantly conferred on the forty-six-year-old reporter the mantle of premier journalistic interpreter of American politics. The huge success of White's epochal book derived from his ability while at the height of his powers--with reportorial and narrative skills honed to a fine edge by two decades of writing magazine articles, nonfiction books, and novels--to portray vividly and memorably the characters and campaign strategies of the seven candidates who were in the field in 1960 and, beyond that, to sketch the sociohistorical context in which this political combat occurred. What immediately struck most readers, lay and professional alike, was the consummate skill with which he wove fact and anecdote, characterization and narration, historical background and statistical analysis, personal description and second-hand observation into an artistic, dramatic whole, which appeared in a comprehensive account explaining the outcome and meaning of the election.

Taking only six weeks to reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list after its debut, the book remained number one for twenty weeks, eventually selling more than four million copies. It quickly emerged as a model for others to emulate, radically transforming the manner in which campaign reporters functioned, as they now sought to capture in minute detail the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the candidates and their strategy boards and to probe beneath the surface events of political campaigns to ascertain where the "real action" lay.(1)

Not always appreciated at the time was the amount of artistry involved in White's narrative approach: his reliance on a selection process that arranged and rearranged the raw materials in such a way as to emphasize their drama, clarify the confusion, and impart meaning to what often seemed chaotic and obscure at the time. Because there was so much logic and good sense in the book, such penetrating insight, and such a wealth of anecdotal description, most reviewers emphasized its revolutionary nature, stressing its obvious virtues rather than its possible weaknesses. Superlatives were the order of the day: "an extraordinarily interesting and illuminating account" (Foreign Affairs); "an extraordinary performance by a shrewd interpreter of the American scene" (Saturday Review); "no book that I know of has caught the heartbeat of a campaign as strikingly" (New York Times); "the campaign is recaptured in detail and excitement with suspense" (Time).(2)

Only later, as sequels appeared for the campaigns of 1964, 1968, and 1972, did reviewers sharpen their lances, honing in on the author's alleged toadying to powerful politicos on whose cooperation he heavily depended--"ass-kissing" in the parlance of the young and irreverent. Richard Nixon, to cite the most obvious example, had come off poorly in the first book, but by 1968, White joined the journalistic pack in depicting a "new Nixon"--mellower, more mature, and better prepared to lead the nation than he had been eight years earlier. The cascade of colorful anecdote and detail that had struck readers as being so fresh and entertaining in the initial volume became almost parodistic by the third or fourth time around. One detractor characterized White's "passion for tidbits, for small detail, for color" and his hindsight-endowed "omniscience" as carryovers from his years at Time magazine, where he had begun his journalistic career two decades earlier.(3)

From the hindsight of four decades, it is possible to sort out the claims and counterclaims and to put them into longer perspective. The Making of the President 1960 certainly deserves recognition for going light-years beyond its predecessors in providing a comprehensive and nuanced interpretation of an entire presidential campaign, full of insight and passion, colorful and readable at once.

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