EVENTUALLY, MOST REPORTERS come to discover that the old cliche about their trade is true, after all: it is a game for young people. All of us resist this, of course, put it out of our minds. But the truth becomes harder and harder to avoid as we begin to grasp how little we understood when we were quick and young, how wrong we were about the big events we observed and recorded. Elections, trials, public catastrophes pass by again and the older reporter sees quite different, more permanent meanings in them, or perhaps, more devastating, an absence of meaning.

This is not as melancholy as it sounds, for reporters enjoy a compensation: journalism is a marvelous way to stay young. Everyone loves to watch a good fire, to inspect the wreckage of a highway crash, to be there when the president descends from his royal airplane. Reporters do this everyday and get paid for it. Let's face it: being a reporter is a lot of fun. Grown men and women will pretend that it also has deeper meaning, but mainly they keep doing it to stay young.

Theodore White, the premier political reporter of our time, stayed young longer than most. He was 61 years old when he set out again in 1978 to chronicle another presidential election, the fifth in a series of famous books entitled The Making of the President. A great American melodrama was unfolding, a small-town farmer was about to be chosen leader, a perfect tale for White's skills as a story teller.

He couldn't write the book. He abandoned the campaign. He sensed, without being able to grasp precisely why, that his ideas, his formula, his theory of history and politics, no longer connected with the events he was witnessing. The accumulated public evidence confronted Teddy White, more cruelly than most, with the verdict that he had been wrong -- presidency itself, wrong about beloved America and where it was headed in history.

From Kennedy to Nixon, White's books enshrouded reality in romantic mythology, the good king mystically selected to lead, battling heroically against the fates, enlarged by his terrible responsibilities to a heroic dimension, unifying the nation by his goodness. If that sounds harsh, go back and read the concluding chapter of each "President" book. Each contains what might be called an "apotheosis" passage, in which the newly-chosen leader is raised up mystically by the powers of democracy itself. But each of White's heroes failed on the throne, for every modern president since Eisenhower has disappointed the unreal expectations implicit in White's myth of heroes.

White's failure to write about the campaign of 1976 is less a personal failure than one of a certain journalistic mindset which dominates the "stories" told by newspapers and magazines. A generation of reporters (myself included) read White's books, the early ones at least, and saw instantly that he was the best, the one we would emulate. His influence on the Washington press is immense still; it frames the way in which most reporters look at politics and history.

White was the best, no question. He writes like a fair wind, refreshing the landscape. He tells a story so well that familiar events become compelling, pulling readers forward to a climax they already know. He is, one can tell, a good-hearted man, open and sympathetic. Most important, Teddy White loves America. He loves this country with the special fervor of an immigrant's son, a son whose own success has confirmed the unfulfilled dreams of his father.

So this is the book he decided to write instead, a reflective memoir of his own career as a reporter. It had the promise of natural tension in it, perhaps even a tragic inner lining, as White revisited his past triumphs, from Red China to Camelot, and re-examined the inner stitching of his famous stories in search of better understanding.

It doesn't work. He begins bravely, announcing self-doubts and confusion, but after traveling through many continents and interesting events, glimpsing famous men from Mao to Eisenhower, one is left at the conclusion with the same questions.

Readers who loved the powerful narrative line of White's other books will find this one strangely disjointed and unthematic, as though he promised himself not to impose a story line on the events of his own life, not to make new myth out of small anecdotes. The memoir ends lamely, acknowledging that he has not really sorted out the fundamental confusions about politics and the nation. He promises a next book which will explore further.

The most important thing to say about White as a reporter is that he learned the trade with Time magazine, charmed by Henry Luce, excited by that magazine's enormous influence on the world events which were building toward World War II. Time journalism conceptualized events and crisis around public personalities, converted every trend, every problem into a personal drama, in which good guys and bad guys struggled to shape history's outcome.

This is still what Time does every week, less crudely than it did in Luce's day. This is still the implicit conception which guides most news coverage, while the world's complexity has demolished its usefulness. Thus, Time's response to the so-called "energy crisis" is to put James R. Schlesinger on its cover in a Superman suit. When inflation grabs center stage, the news media nominates "inflation fighters," a Barry Bosworth or Robert Strauss, who will make it go away. The relentless criticism of President Carter has very little to do with the substance of his programs. It is mainly that Carter's performance as heroic leader disappoints the media, does not conform to the heroic dimensions of White's mythology.

White speaks of "Heroes" and "Accidents." The hero struggles toward a good goal and is diverted or blocked by Accidents. Thus, even at this late date, White is able to believe that the war in Vietnam was an Accident which his Hero, John F. Kennedy, would have prevented had he lived. This is an approach that avoids real causes -- the complex and powerful forces within U.S. foreign policy, within politics and the society itself, which propelled Kennedy and his successors deeper and deeper into that swamp.

Indeed, the main story of the last four presidents has been the utter defeat of the president as Hero. In different ways, these men were each overwhelmed or driven by dynamics too large to control (including their own insecurities). While White celebrated presidential elections as the magic moment of our democracy, the American public found the process less and less persuasive. They broke out of the mold of electoral politics and stormed the government with direct action --marches, pickets, strikes.

White's memoir touches these questions, but he seems unable to address them directly. Even his memories of wartime China and Time are seen through a murky lens. Clearly, he loved roaming that country, getting to know and understand the dynamics of Communist hegemony which he saw at work. Yet he tells us, almost parenthetically, that Time published a quite different story for its American readers -- a noble drama built around Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists whom White knew were corrupt and doomed. A few years later, after an absorbing book in which White described the Chinese revolutionaries of the future, Time was calling its former correspondent a "pinko." White seems barely troubled by the Luce censorship or the slander.

White is, in fact, unwilling to abandon the Time theory of history. When his memoir reaches Kennedy, the author makes a mild apology for introducing the notion of Camelot into the popular memory of that man, but he goes on to attribute to Kennedy a historic importance which strains the reality even more. White tells us Kennedy is responsible for our tumultuous movements of participatory democracy among women, minorities, youth, ethnics. I do not think future historians will attribute that political upheaval to the gleaming memory of JFK.

White's later books, on the elections of 1968 and 1972, expressed considerable irritation with those forces. He was exasperated and even a little meanspirited about those unruly citizens who were out in the streets, attacking the process which he found so worthy. He could not understand why they were so hostile to good men trying to pursue worthy goals.

Millions of citizens no longer share the orthodox belief that elections deliver the consent of the governed into a hands of a few good men who can be trusted to do their best. After Nixon's 1972 triumph, built upon deceit and corruption, it was most difficult to entertain White's version of that election, his now familiar theme of a leader ennobled by his own victory.

Nixon killed the mythology, for a long time, perhaps forever if we are wise, and I do not think this book will do much to revive it. Democracy has become more complicated than Heroes and Accidents. I'm sure that will be good for America, in the long run, but it does make life much more painful for reporters in search of stories to tell --