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Theodore H. White, Author, Dead at 71

May 16, 1986|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

Theodore H. White, the owl-faced, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian who dramatically changed the look of American political reporting with his popular "The Making of the President" books, died late Thursday at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 71.

White, according to friends, appeared to be in good health and was involved in writing projects up until last Friday, when he collapsed at his upper East Side Manhattan residence.

"I think he was the greatest journalistic explainer of American politics and American life around," said his longtime close friend Richard M. Clurman, former chief of correspondents at Time and Life magazines, where White worked for years as a foreign correspondent. "He was a wonderful yarn spinner. He could take the most familiar subject and make it leap into people's heads."

A successful reporter of limitless energy for almost half a century, White achieved overnight international stature with his book, "The Making of the President, 1960," which in 1961 stayed on best-seller lists for almost a year, sold more than four million copies and won him the Pulitzer the following year.

A chronicle of John F. Kennedy's razor-thin victory over Richard M. Nixon, the book set new standards of reporting in its intimate narrative of the presidential candidates and their respective campaigns for the White House. It became a new genre of political reportage and its "inside stuff" riveted millions.

At work on the book for more than a year before the 1960 election, White, who had total recall and an uncanny ability to synthesize material into fascinating narratives, was able to amass a remarkable assortment of anecdotes. He succeeded in placing the reader beside the candidate during relentless days of campaigning while providing unique glimpses into political strategy sessions.

Years later, White was almost apologetic in describing his new brand of journalism.

'It's Overkill'

"It's overkill," he explained in a 1969 New York Times interview. "Interview everybody, be everywhere, see everything. The best time to listen to a politician is when he's on a stump on a street corner in the rain late at night when he's exhausted. Then he doesn't lie."

But as other political reporters picked up on his technique for intimate detail, which became known as the "Teddy White Syndrome," the author pondered the implications of what he had started.

"It's appalling what we've done to (the candidates)," he told journalist Timothy Crouse in an interview for Crouse's book on the 1972 presidential campaign press corps, "The Boys on the Bus." "There's a conflict here--the absolute need of the public to know versus the candidate's need for privacy, which is an equivalent and absolute need," White said. "I don't know how you resolve it."

Ever pondering this dilemma, White reflected in a 1978 interview with the Los Angeles Times that "you must never get immersed in the world view of the person you're covering. On the other hand, how the hell are you going to get to know them if you only cover the public appearances and never sit around chatting?"

Born in Boston

Theodore Harold White was born in modest circumstances in Boston's Roxbury ghetto on May 6, 1915. White was one of four children. After the death of his father, a lawyer with a small local practice, he sold newspapers in the early days of the Great Depression.

Recalling his life at a downtown Boston streetcar stop, White said: "As the cars pulled up, I'd jump aboard and run through with the papers, then jump out again and onto the next car. It made me agile as hell, but I got bitterer and bitterer."

His high school grades brought him acceptance from Harvard University but he had to delay further academic life by two years. His family of five was drawing $11 a week on welfare. So at age 16, he taught Hebrew and again sold newspapers to help keep food on the table.

He got to Harvard in 1932, on a newsboy's scholarship, aspiring to become a historian--but in an ivory tower and not in the hurly-burly world of contemporary journalism.

For reasons that he could never fully explain, White had chosen to immerse himself in Chinese studies under John King Fairbank, a young professor who was to become a national authority on China.

"Fairbank took in this penniless student and made him feel at home, and cared for him and gave him entree to a larger world," wrote journalist David Halberstam in his 1979 book, "The Powers That Be."

Then, recounted Halberstam, Fairbank tried to sort out where White would fit in professionally in the world outside Harvard.

Other Possibilities

"He would make a fine scholar," Halberstam wrote, "but Fairbank thought there were other possibilities, all that energy and curiosity, a skill with words, though perhaps a bit purple. Teddy should be a journalist. For a graduation present he gave him a second-hand typewriter and six letters of introduction for China. It was the making of a journalist."

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