From the time he was a little boy growing up in a Jewish ghetto in Boston, Theodore Harold White has been imbued with the importance of history. His grandparents taught him about his Jewish past. As a youth, he was well aware of the menace of Hitler; when a German zeppelin flew low over a Boston park one evening, White and his friends danced a defiant hora in the nimbus of its mooring lights. His father, an immigrant scholar, preached that China was crucial to the world—a giant country in transition. In 1939, a year out of Harvard, Teddy White was recruited in war-torn China by TIME as a correspondent at the age of 24. In the 39 years since then, Teddy White has reported all over the globe. His articles and books—especially the best-selling accounts of four presidential campaigns, The Making of the President—have won him a Pulitzer Prize and the esteem of the reading public and his journalistic colleagues. Recently White completed the first volume of his memoirs, In Search of History, to be published August 16. Gearing up for a second volume, which will cover the years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, White, 63, talked to Richard Oulahan of PEOPLE in the Manhattan townhouse where he lives and works.
Why did you pick China as a specialty back in the 1930s?
When my father told me about China, it made an impression. But the real reason was simply that I walked across a corridor. Boylston Hall was a great stone building at Harvard divided into two parts. Half of it was the history library, and it was always crowded with students. I discovered the other half was the library of the Harvard Yenching Institute of Chinese Studies—and all I had to do was sneak into its empty reading room, where I could study in peace surrounded by the greatest repository of Oriental books outside Asia. Soon I was looking into those books, and in my sophomore year I began to study Chinese.
You first interviewed Mao in 1944. What is your lasting impression of him?
He had the most powerful, domineering, personal will of anyone I have ever encountered. There was a touch of paranoia. And he imposed his will on other men. It seemed frivolous or eerie to me as a young reporter interviewing him to hear this guy sitting in a cave in Yenan tell me that he was going to take over China and remake it. Years later, in the fall of 1975, I met Jimmy Carter at a big New York party and got the same kind of feeling. He stood there and told 40 people in that room how he was going to be President. He had the desire to impose his will and, like Mao, he was placid and absolutely certain that he was going to prevail.
How did you first get the idea of writing The Making of the President?
I was covering the 1956 campaign for Collier’s. It was the first time in 20 years that I had gotten home for an election, and it seemed completely confusing to me. In a campaign you drown in marshmallows. The PR men are always putting out so much crap, you can’t tell what’s really happening. But before I could write my story Collier’s asked me to direct an emergency program to save the magazine. In December it died anyway. After that I wrote a couple of novels. When The View from the 40th Floor came out, Gary Cooper bought the film rights for $80,000. Money irrigates dreams. I sat out on Fire Island and said, “I don’t need to work for a corporation anymore. I’ll write a book about a presidential campaign from beginning to end.”
What would you have done if John Kennedy had lost in 1960?
I would have written a book anyway. My heart was with Kennedy, but I could have written about the Nixon campaign. I covered both camps. It’s a question of journalistic overkill. I take 10 times as much information in preparing a book as I’ll ever need.
Was there a great difference in covering the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns?
Let me put it this way: You’re on a campaign plane with 10 or 12 guys, and Kennedy walks back and says, “Hey, Teddy, come on up and have a nightcap with me.” And, even though you’ve spent 18 hours with him that day, you’re eager to talk about the day’s events. But when Nixon walked through the plane, every reporter was looking fixedly out the window. Eighteen hours with Nixon was enough.
Yet in The Making of the President 1972 you were accused of blind partisanship toward Nixon, of missing the signs of Watergate. Why?
I covered his campaign and wrote the story of his election. When I was bringing the book in for a landing, I knew something was wrong. Somebody said, “There’s something very suspicious in the hold.” But time forced me to end the book. If I had it to do again, I’d retitle the book Guilty of a Small Crime, for Nixon’s crime was not commensurate with, say, that of Lyndon Johnson plunging half a million boys into Vietnam. My book is still the best description of how Richard Nixon won the largest presidential margin in American history.
Will you ever write another Making of the President?
I’ll wrap it into the second half of In Search of History. I think Carter will be reelected in 1980. His campaign in 1976 was so bizarre, it didn’t fit the formula of my other books, so I didn’t make a book of it.
Why have the Making of the President books been so popular?
They are the story of the grab for power. People want to know what really happened, how it happened, who made it happen. There’s always somebody, always an idea in the back of somebody’s head behind every historical event. The single most dramatic moment in my life was the sight of hundreds of planes coming out of the Pacific, flying over the Missouri during the signing of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. It was a terrifying sight, calculated to scare the daylights out of everybody, and it had that effect. It was staged, of course, by General MacArthur. And it’s the same with every presidential election. They are always carefully staged.
Why was MacArthur so fascinating?
Every time you saw MacArthur you got a story. He was eminently quotable, very candid. He said outrageous things. Imagine anybody in 1942 saying Franklin Roosevelt and General Marshall ought to be fired! There were two Douglas MacArthurs: One would roar and entertain, and then there was the other MacArthur, first in his class in West Point, an extraordinary general in the field who fought his battles with a minimum loss of life. He was a superb administrator. But he never understood U.S. politics.
Would you put MacArthur in the top category of world figures you have known?
No. I can only think of three or four who were really in the top category. Gen. Joe Stilwell was one and, of course, Jack Kennedy. And Chou En-lai. There was no one like Stilwell. In any other theater than China, he would have gone down as another Eisenhower or Patton. But using Chinese troops was like cutting wood with a rubber saw. I can still see him, frustrated by Chiang Kai-shek. “We’ve gotta get rid of this illiterate, stupid son of a bitch,” he’d say.
What are some of the tricks of your particular trade?
I keep journal notes of everything I do every day, and as I grow older I write more notes. I find that some of the most important things seem to be irrelevancies at first. When I was in Yenan in 1944, I didn’t realize that the Chinese Communists were offering us an alliance. With it there might have been no Korean war, no war in Vietnam. After typing out the journal notes of a lunch I had with Ike in Paris, I realized he was going to go for the Presidency. I reported Vietnam as far back as 1940. I knew then we should stay the hell away from that corner of the world. But in 1965 I didn’t say so. I’d forgotten what I had in my notes.
Is the press too powerful?
Yes, but like Jefferson, if I had to choose between the dangers of an arrogant press aristocracy and an arrogant government that would clip the wings of the press, I would opt for the press any time.
What will you do next?
I’ve got a couple more books to write before I’m finished. The secret of good writing is to recognize it. Either it’s there on the first draft or you have to fight on through to the 20th. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s there. Most people think writing is easy, but they’re wrong. It’s hard work. You use the same muscle in your head all the time.