The Not-So-Dull Campaign
The Making of the President, 1964 By Theodore H.White '38 Atheneum Press, 431 pp.
This is no ordinary book; the chances are that long after Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater are dead, The Making of the President, 1964, and its older brother 1960, are still going to be read.
True, anyone reading White's book 100 years from now is going to have to wade through a lot of footnotes to catch up to Theodore H.White's knowledge of American politics. But the same is true of a lot of classics, like Boswell's Life of Johnson, to which White's book bears something of a family resemblance. Like Boswell, White believes that he lives in a world run by people. "Historials insist that the inevitable is inevitable only after people have made it so," he says, and there are dozens of similar phrases in this book that tell you that Theodore White is no determinist, no sir. So his book, like Boswell's centers, on people. Yet he opens his lens to include the country that they run.
There are two kinds of scenes which White describes superbly; one is the confused political scramble, for votes, for delegates, for money, which he can pull apart by brushing the debris aside and focusing on one person. Remember those dry newspaper stories of last June, the ones that told you over and over again that Goldwater had picked up 25 delegates in North Carolina, that Montana had given him 14 more and Louisiana 19? You won't recognize them when you read White's account of how Luke Williams, the man who invented the little signs that flash the time and the temperature, organized Goldwater's campaign in Washington. Remember reading thousands of little charts on the organization of the American economy in Ec 101? Throw them out; read White's four-page description of the operation of the "Eastern Establishment" and watch how a thinking reporter makes this "dull" subject come alive.
Then there are the scenes everyone thought he knew about-Rockefeller's remarriage, the draft-Lodge campaign, Johnson's choosing Humphrey as his vice-President-White probes into them, and shows them to you and they turn out to be very unfamiliar and very interesting. I can't prove this to you without quoting huge slabs; buy this book and see how much you didn't know last year.
After paying Mr. White his due, however, one must record that this book bears very obviously the signs of its hasty authorship. Far more than its predecessor it appears to have been rushed to the presses virtually unedited, and to have been written with little time for retrospection. Some of-this-the rough writing("There is no word less than superb to describe the performance of Lyndon Baines Johnson as he became President of the United States") can be eliminated and no doubt will be in later editions. It will be less easy to eliminate some of the deeper flaws, for they stem from the nature of the campaign itself.
No, I am not referring to the idea that this was a "dull campaign"-that ridiculous notion that became a clichs so quickly last fall as newspaper editorial writers watched this extraordinary battle taking place before their eyes and misread it. If Mr. White goes through with his project of writing these books for twelve more years, it still seems probable that 1964 will be the volume most looked back to by future Americans. They will look and ask, as perhaps we ourselves will in a quarter of a century, how to explain this Goldwater phenomenon, whether it appears by then as the one great aberration of postwar American history or as a turning point in that history.
But carefully though they read Mr. White's book, they will not find all the answers there. For Mr. White may be an old China hand and former destitute novelist, but he is now, palpably one of the members of the Eastern Establishment he describes so brilliantly. And he has had great trouble in tuning in to those two very non-Establishment figures, Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater.
With Johnson, he has made the best of it. White records that he never had an interview with Johnson, but he had ready access to the men around him, and this seems to have been enough-perhaps because there is so much about Johnson to explain that the flashes of insight in this book seem exceptional. At any rate, White has somehow compiled a chapter-length portrait of Johnson, that is almost beyond question the best thing in print on this most baffling of subjects, even though it is not firsthand.
Yet there are passages of Johnson's behavior-his peculiar relations with the press, for example-that Mr. White cannot explain-and when it comes to Goldwater, the passages become chapters. When White shifts from the Democratic to the Republican campaign, he changes from insider to outsider. He examines Goldwater instead of trying, as he does with Nelson Rockefeller, to see through his eyes. "There is an almost irresistible temptation to tell the story of the debacle as comedy," he says of the Goldwater campaign, but he never tells us why this man who ran two brilliantly successful Senate campaigns in Arizona could do nothing to keep his campaign from going downhill once it started. Why was the brilliant Goldwater organization that Mr. White describes in Chapter Three so ineffective at turning out the voters in Chapter Thirteen?
He treats the Goldwater campaign as if it had been hopeless from the start, but it is tempting to recall that not too many people were willing to say so a year ago, with the memory of San Francisco still fresh and the thought of George Wallace's primary adventures to prick them (and before all those comforting Quayle polls were published). How did Goldwater get all these California Republicans-the same people who vote for Thomas Kuchel in his primaries and for Richard Nixon against Joe Shell-to vote for him? White explains it in terms of Rockefeller's baby arriving the weekend before the primary, and of a Goldwater campaign that sent housewives door-to-door, meeting each other-but why did the housewife system work in June and not in November?
In short, Mr. White offers us a Barry Goldwater stumbling and bumbling down the long campaign, but never bothers to ask why he was permitted on the road in 1964 at all, or, more intriguingly, what would have happened if he had not stumbled? What if Goldwater had not spoken against the poverty program in West Virginia, suppose his campaign organization had not broken down-was there an audience, waiting to be tapped by his conservatism, that he could have reached? Was he, in other words, an aberration, or will this "conservative revival" be something to think about in 1968 and in 1972?
One ought to say, too, that this same hurried quality hurts Mr. White's exhaustive treatment of civil rights in 1964. He brushes off the Freedom Democratic Party's stubbornness in Atlantic City as of no consequence, as a repudiation of "the triumph that morality had wrong for them out of the laws of the Convention. "This seems a hasty write-off for what may go down as the first effort to take Negroes out of the major parties in the South, to make them a political force independent of Republican or Democratic organizations.
But if Mr. White's book is hasty, it is because it is reporting-it is some of the best journalism produced in an age of great journalistic talent. The jerks that make this book sound hurried also give it the breathless, behind-the-scenes nature that make it so readable. There were people who felt that The Making of the President, 1960 was the best book ever written on American politics; I think it is still the best of all the mountain of writing that has been done on John Kennedy. If 1964 is not as brilliant a success, it is at least worthy to stand on the same shelf.