Theodore H. White

SOME CLICHES are true, and none more resoundingly so than that Theodore H. (Teddy) White, who died on Thursday, transformed political reporting in this country. Political junkies who were not of age at the time may find it hard to imagine the electric effect his first campaign book, "The Making of a President, 1960," had on readers and writers, not to mention practitioners, of American politics. One reason they will find it hard is that Mr. White's outlook and technique have been so thoroughly appropriated by his colleagues since then as to make them seem unexceptional. It is a tribute to Mr. White that this is so, and no criticism of him to say that the product of his imitators has often been superficial, shmalzy and intellectually disastrous. Mr. White knew what he was doing. It wasn't his fault that so many of those who tried to be like him did not.

What was his particular gift, his particular innovation? Mr. White brought political reporting to life. He married narrative to analysis in a new way: it wasn't a mere piling on of "color" and personal detail as it became in lesser hands, but rather an understanding of the relationship of the individual human political actor to the complex of issues, circumstances and historically impelled economic and social forces in which he was functioning.

Mr. White was fascinated by this interplay of real, vulnerable and (for all their frequent bull and bravado) often poignant political personalities with the unwieldy and intractable world around them, the world they had decided to master. He was moved by their shortcomings, their doomed ambitions and their failures, and for the complexity and largeness of his view, he was often attacked as "soft" on his subjects, as one who was trying to curry favor. This was to misread the man. Mr. White simply refused to adopt fashionable hates or to interpret his subjects as one dimensional stick figures in a political allegory. His effort was to see them human and whole, the better to understand -- and to report. He was a stranger to the smug, supercilious strain in American journalism.

Read his book "In Search of History" if you want to understand not just the man but the craft he practiced and, by example, taught. It is, first, an autobiography of this child of poor Jewish parents who found his way to the Boston Public Latin School, to a summa cum laude degree from Harvard, to the notable years of reporting from China and then Europe in which he established a large reputation and finally to the focus on American political life. From the first page of that book you will see the values that animated the man. Setting off on what was to be his eminently successful China adventure, Mr. White posed the question his entire professional career was an attempt to answer: "My relatives gave me secondhand clothes. I bought a new suitcase and I had two hundred dollars in traveler's checks plus one hundred dollars in greenbacks in my wallet to get me to China. . . . I hoped to come back to Harvard. But first I must satisfy curiosity, my absolute lust to see what was happening in the China I had studied. How did history actually happen?"