The news of Theodore H. White's death came to me during another political assignment in Oregon, one of the many places he had made his own by the way he wrote of it.
In "The Making of the President 1968," White quoted an unnamed aide to Robert F. Kennedy, explaining Kennedy's loss to Eugene J. McCarthy in the Oregon primary 18 years ago this month: "Oregon is all one great white middle-class suburb. It's a good state. It has no problems. We frightened them." It was the perfect summary and analysis -- for the time.
White also caught the unique intimacy of this state's politics, where rivals become neighbors. On the night of the Oregon voting, he followed Kennedy back to the Benson Hotel in Portland, through a mob of diehard supporters shouting, "Don't quit, Bobby!" "In fear, as always, of being trampled down by his hordes . . . I wandered with my bags . . . to a half-empty downstairs restaurant called the London Grill, to find a moment of quiet. . . . There in a corner, was a familiar figure, the Republican victor of the evening. Richard Nixon and his wife . . . sat together at a corner table eating their dinner -- with no one else even close, or watching, or approaching. . . ." White was invited over and during dinner was informed of Nixon's impending meeting with the southern leaders who were to provide the final votes for the nomination. "I'm going on to Atlanta, Teddy, I'm going to wrap up the whole campaign there. Come along with us," Nixon said.
That passage captures a few of the qualities that made "The Making of the President" series so popular and established White as the preeminent political writer of his time. He was almost always in the right place. He took the readers with him and made the sights, sounds and emotions of the campaign as familiar to them as their own back yards.
But that was only a part of what made Teddy White unique and irreplaceable. To colleagues on the press bus, he was the boon companion, the most appreciative audience for our tales, the kindest critic of our work, the man whose unending curiosity and ebullience lifted our spirits when we were tired or jaded or hung-over. So great was his enthusiasm for the story, he would not let us become cynics.
He elevated the standards and the status of political writing. From beginning to end of his career, he chose to be quite simply a reporter. He gave political reporting the intimate focus, the historical depth and the narrative sweep which changed forever the way the rest of us attempted to cover campaigns.
The lesser imitations spawned by his success were sometimes embarrassing. When White hung out in Suite 8315 of the Los Angeles Biltmore during the Democratic convention of 1960, his readers got a sense of the drama in the Kennedy command post that they had never known. When platoons of reporters and cameramen followed his path to candidates' suites in later years, they produced only stilted pictures of shirt-sleeved, self-conscious nominees.
No one was his equal at weaving census data and economic studies into the human context of a campaign. No one ever surpassed the sheer narrative artistry of the 25-page first chapter of the 1960 book, depicting the drama of Election Day as seen from the Hyannisport compound of the man about to become president.
White was the first and the best. Once he had written, in the 1960 book, that "Every convention is a universe in itself, with its own strange centers of gravity, its own fresh heroes and fools, its own new resolution of pressures and forces, its own irrecapturable stage of mood and place," there was nothing to add. We could only paraphrase. Yet even as we tried to rise to his example, we stretched our abilities beyond what they would otherwise have been.
White not only changed political journalism, he changed politics itself -- in a way no other reporter has done. Quite literally, he taught a generation of politicians how to become president.
Chapter Two of the 1960 book detailed -- for the first time -- how the campaigns for the highest office in the land had begun, years earlier, with gatherings of handfuls of people in someone's living room. They were few, but they were early, they were single-minded, and they understood how the system works.
"The web of American communications, influence and politics," he wrote, "is so sensitive that when touched in the right way by men who know how, it clangs with instant response. Nowhere can men gather together on their own initiative and self-election, from distances more apparently remote -- and then rush the bridge of state with greater chance of success. It is their fewness that raps at the historian's attention."
White's point was grasped by men in such apparently remote places as Scottsdale, Ariz.; Mitchell, S.D.; Plains, Ga.; and Santa Barbara, Calif. Some won, some lost, but, responding to his cues, they developed what has become the perpetual campaign, the marathon presidential effort of today.
Another race is now under way, but for the first time in 30 years, Teddy White will not be here to chronicle it. That means we will never know it in the same way.