In the closing years of his career, when new young jazz idols were being fawned over by the fickle public, the great Louis Armstrong was asked how he felt about the bop musicians who had taken his place in popular esteem. "Let them beat their brains out until their flatted fifths are gone," he said. "They'll pass and be forgotten like the rest."
Something of the same sentiment applies to the career of Theodore H. White, who died last week. In the last years of his life, it had become fashionable in some journalistic circles to disparage the work of White, chronicler of American presidents and troubadour of American political life. He was, it was said with mock solemnity, out of date, too romantic, too close to the powerful people who became the subjects of his making-of-the-presidency books.
There is no need to defend Teddy White from these criticisms. For years to come, his books will speak for themselves, surely outliving his critics. He was a great reporter in the old-fashioned sense: through diligent reporting of fact, sifting of data, hard labor of thought, establishment of theme and composition, he gave meaning to the larger currents of American life. He shunned polemics and ideological posturing in print; he was, first and foremost, a reporter. His interest, always, was in the story.
He brought to American journalism the narrative gift and the historian's perspective. These enabled him to bring great moments to life on paper in ways that few have equaled or surpassed. His reporting on the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay aboard the decks of the battleship USS Missouri that ended World War II, for example:
"This was to be no cloistered surrender, as had been the surrender of the Germans at Reims, three months earlier. MacArthur wanted everyone there, and the world to watch. The Missouri's veranda deck bristled with high command . . . . The crush held everyone erect, each of us allotted two square feet of tiptoe space from which we could watch. The enlisted men who had fought the war, the sailors and the marines, found what space they could, and very few of the Missouri's crew could have remained below. Sailors in dress whites sat with their feet dangling over the long gray barrels of the 16-inch guns on which they perched: they hung from every line and rope. This would be a sight to remember, to tell their children, to tell their grandchildren. None of us knew then that this was the last war America would cleanly, conclusively win. We thought it was the last war ever.
"A shrill piping announced the arrival of the Japanese. The first aboard was Mamoru Shigemitsu, the new Japanese foreign minister, in silk hat, morning coat and striped trousers. Limping on his wooden leg and a cane, he pulled himself up the catwalk, clutching for a grip. He had lost his leg in an assassination attempt before the war; the young radicals of prewar Japan, believing he was soft on Japan's destiny, had tried to kill him because he wanted peace with America. But that had been long ago; none of us knew it, so none of us offered a hand to the crippled old man as he dragged himself to the veranda deck where he would seal the surrender in the war he had once sought to avoid."
Teddy White had another attribute associated with great reporters. Unlike some in this age of celebrity journalism, when fame stems more from show-business style than from substance, he was no pompous prima donna lording it over his lessers. To the end, he was ever generous to younger colleagues and always eager to offer a helping hand.
Some weeks ago, I asked my publisher to send White proofs of a forthcoming first novel. In a matter of days, and even though he was in the midst of his own demanding writing schedule for the book he would never finish, back came a long and wonderfully touching letter. Upon receiving the proofs, he wrote, he had read them straight through in one sitting at night. After some characteristically generous words, he penciled a P.S.: "Save me a seat for the movie premiere."
I wish now that I had not imposed on his valuable time, but I wouldn't trade that letter for anything. And should that unlikely premiere occur, Teddy, there will be one seat, down front, on the aisle, set aside for you. It will remain empty. No one else could possibly fill it.