Perhaps wanting to know an author because you like his books is like wanting to know a cow because you liked its milk. But having enjoyed Theodore H. White's latest book, "America in Search of Itself: 1980," I wish I knew this man who can be so charming even when depressed.
He is especially fascinating on 1956, and Estes Kefauver, the first politician to become a national figure because of television, through his crime hearings. White believes that Kefauver's upset of Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 New Hampshire primary invested primaries with new importance. And when Stevenson threw the vice presidential choice to the 1956 convention, and Kefauver beat John Kennedy on the basis of proven strength in the primaries, Kennedy took note. Soon conventions became ratifying, not deciding, bodies.
White has a reporter's tendency to believe that vivid events are as important as they are vivid. He says, wrongly, that Ronald Reagan won the 1980 New Hampshire primary by seizing the microphone at the Nashua debate. Actually, Reagan had surged ahead well before that. Perhaps journalistic narcissism makes journalists think that communications technologies are the levers that move history--hence White's obsession with television. He calls it "the most unsettling event in Western society since the invention of printing."
It is possible to make too much-- and White does--of the Republican delegate in 1968 who said he could not switch from Nixon to Reagan because, "I told CBS that I'm voting for Nixon. I'm pledged to CBS." I do not know what White means when he says Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor had "the power to set up summit conferences between the Arabs and the Israelis," but the statement is false.
He says technologies--the telegraph, telephone, national magazines, broadcasting--have "nationalized" opinion. Actually, they have nationalized controversies, but have not homogenized opinion.
White believes that in 1980 "Americans decisively repudiated a set of experiences and ideas that had brought them to a time of self-questioning." But no election analysis demonstrates that, and the current budget battle, reflecting national ambivalence, tends to refute White's belief. Reagan's presidency began 36 years after the World War II, just as Teddy Roosevelt's presidency began 36 years after Appomattox. But Reagan's presidency does not mark as radical a break with previous patterns as TR's did.
White says of 1980, "Those Democrats who succeeded in holding on to their (Senate) seats, such as Glenn of Ohio and Cranston of California . . . managed to resist the flowing tide." But Glenn and Cranston were a tide. Together they got more votes (7,470,786) than the combined votes for seven winning Republicans in the Senate (in Georgia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Oregon). Glenn's and Cranston's combined winning margin of votes (3,245,064) was larger--much larger--than the combined winning margins of all 22 Republicans (2,471,573). White's talk of flowing tides obscures the fact that in 1980 Democratic Senate candidates got more votes than Republican candidates.
The wonder is that Democrats won anything, considering their intra-party zaniness. At the convention, Puerto Rico had more votes (41) than Oregon (39) or West Virginia (35). California's Democratic Party reserved 15 percent of its delegate slots for Hispanics--then counted Greeks as Hispanics. Because George Wallace won the 1972 Michigan primary, liberals fiddled the rules and imposed a kind of poll tax, so in 1980 only 16,048 participated in the caucuses.
White is especially depressed because the old idea of equality under law has been supplanted by racial entitlements. Forty-six million people-- one-fifth of the nation--were members of minorities entitled to special treatment. But what did White think was coming when in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson said, "We seek . . . not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result."
White denounces courts for "spraying the United States Constitution into every nook and cranny of national life," an opinion he did not express in the books he wrote when the Warren Court was in high gear. He approvingly quotes an official saying that the Supreme Court epitomized government hubris in the 1960s: "We know what is right, so why not say the Constitution mandates it?"
Yet White is enthusiastic about the use of raw judicial power to overturn 50 states' abortion laws. And he detests the predictable result of such judicial imperialism, such as the right-to-life movement, about which he is simply nasty. (He says no "civilized" person could seek its support.)
White says things are going to hell. Hell, Hobbes said, is the truth seen too late.