White, Theodore Harold ("Teddy")

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WHITE, Theodore Harold ("Teddy")

(b. 6 May 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 9 May 1986 in New York City), foreign correspondent, journalist, and author whose books on presidential elections reshaped political reporting in the United States.

White was one of four children of David Vladefsky, a lawyer, and Mary Winkeller White, both Russian immigrants. His father adopted the name "White" from a prominent Boston department store. The elder White used his law degree to support radical causes and represent poor clients, and the family was never well off; after his death in 1931, his widow and children were forced to go on welfare. White graduated from Boston's prestigious Latin High School, and by selling newspapers on streetcars, along with gaining a newsboys' scholarship and assistance from the university, he was able to enter Harvard a year later in 1934.

Majoring in history with an emphasis on China, White earned an A.B. summa cum laude in 1938. Before sailing to China on a Frederick Sheldon traveling fellowship after graduation, he made arrangements to submit stories to the Boston Globe. En route, he earned his first money as a journalist when the Globe published his article on conflicts between Jews and Muslims in Palestine.

In March 1939 White was hired by the Chinese Ministry of Information. Over the next nine months, he filed stories with the Globe, the British Manchester Guardian, and the Australian Broadcasting Company in addition to fulfilling his official duties. As a stringer for Time magazine, he came to the attention of the publisher Henry Luce. White's report of fighting on the Shaanxi front was the first story in Time to carry a byline. With enough journalistic assignments to keep him busy, White ended his connection with the Chinese government in 1940.

Luce brought White to New York in 1941 to do a series of articles for Fortune. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December, White returned to China as a war correspondent and was later awarded an Air Medal for his participation in combat flights. His criticism of the removal of General Joseph Stilwell and an unflattering story on China's Chiang Kai-shek resulted in White being ordered back to the States. He took a leave of absence from Time so that he and Annalee Jacoby could complete Thunder Out of China (1946). This book, and his continued support of the State Department's "old China hands," led to his departure from Time, whose staff soon referred to him as a "pinko" or Communist.

On 29 March 1947 White married Nancy Bean; they had two children. That same year Stilwell's widow asked White to edit her husband's papers. The general's testy views, and White's continued criticism of the Chinese government, made it difficult for him to find work with mass-circulation journals in the United States, so in 1948 he and his family moved to Europe where he had found work with the independent Overseas News Agency.

From Paris, White reported on the Marshall Plan (by which the United States provided economic assistance to European countries recovering from World War II) and the beginnings of the postwar European community. Returning to the States in 1953, he was briefly on the staff of the Reporter and then joined Collier's just before its demise. With the collapse of Collier's, White wrote two novels. The Mountain Road (1958), set in China during the war, was well received and became a selection for various book clubs. The View from the Fortieth Floor (1960) was a fictionalized account of the death of Collier's.

As the new decade opened, it appeared that White had come to the end of his journalistic career. Shifting ground, however, he set out to report on the presidential campaign of 1960. During the primaries, he spent time with the front-runners Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, as well as with other candidates. After the national conventions, he cast the race for the world's most powerful position as a sort of medieval joust. Going behind the headlines, White created a new way of looking at American politics by highlighting what he felt were the roots of the candidates' political ambitions.

The manuscript for The Making of the President was rejected by several publishers who felt there would be little market for a political book several months after the end of the campaign. When the book did appear in 1961, it was a phenomenal success, selling more than four million copies and earning White the Pulitzer Prize. Undoubtedly, the key to its success was White's intellectual insights combined with a compelling narrative.

Although critics generally praised White's work, some questioned his objectivity, arguing that he had become too enamored of the Kennedy charm, and had portrayed the new president more sympathetically than Kennedy's opponents. As a result, White may have overstated the significance of what was a razor-thin margin of victory. His article in Life following Kennedy's assassination in 1963 appeared to continue the myth of Camelot. Despite this criticism, many political reporters adopted White's style in covering subsequent political campaigns.

The 1960s constituted the high point of White's political reporting. The overwhelming success of The Making of the President almost guaranteed that the next presidential campaign would see a successor volume. But The Making of the President: 1964 was less successful in its sale and reception than its predecessor. The fault lay not only with White, but with the fact that the 1964 election was less interesting than that of 1960. The candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater did not inspire the same enthusiasm as Kennedy and Nixon; the issues seemed lackluster and lacking in focus; and over it all hung the pall of Kennedy's death. On the other hand, perhaps White's reporting skills may have been somewhat sharper the second time around.

In some respects, White's next attempt, The Making of the President: 1968, was a failure despite, or perhaps because of, the turmoil and tragedies with which the year began. These included the Tet offensive, the stunning announcement that President Johnson would not seek reelection, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. There were many elements of potential high drama: the disruption of the Democratic convention in Chicago, George Wallace's candidacy, and growing dissension over the war in Vietnam. These events overshadowed the candidates and their personalities, the critical elements of White's previous books.

National politics had simply become too complicated and confusing to be covered by one individual. By now, too, it appeared that White had become an "insider." His strength had always been in interpreting character, but this was an approach that had been outgrown by events. White's last foray into political reporting following the 1972 election was not well received. His views were too colored by his ready access to people in positions of power, and with numerous other journalists delving into elections, his post-election analyses were no longer novel.

In 1971 White divorced his wife, and in March 1974 he married Beatrice Kevitt Hofstadter. Following Nixon's resignation that year, White's Breach of Faith examined the president's political fall. In Search of History (1978) was the first of a planned two-volume work in which White hoped to trace his path as a professional journalist. He was working on the second volume when he died of a stroke in New York City, just three days after his seventy-first birthday.

Known for his lucid and dynamic style, White was a journalist who was committed to in-depth analysis of the headlines. Trained as an historian, he tried to fit the events and figures of his time into an historical framework. As a foreign correspondent White made China understandable to his readers; as a political reporter he forever changed the way Americans look at candidates and elections. He was passionate and involved, traits he never attempted to hide. He cared about outcomes. His narrative style ensured that his work would be a slice of history in the making rather than an ephemeral catalog of passing events.

White's personal papers, notes, and correspondence are in the library of Harvard University. He began to tell his own life story in In Search of History (1978). Edward T. Thompson, ed., Theodore White at Large (1992), provides a collection of some of his major articles. Joyce Hoffmann, Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion (1995), is critical of his role as an "insider," but recognizes the strengths of his work and gives appropriate credit to his reshaping of American journalism. An obituary is in the New York Times (17 May 1986).

Art Barbeau