A pioneering political journalist, T. H. White (1915-1986) gained prominence for his indepth coverage of American political campaigns. His book The Making of the President—1960 helped to alter the style and character of presidential campaigns as well as the way reporters cover them.
Born May 6, 1915, in Boston, Massachusetts, Theodore H. White (known as Teddy) was the son of David and Mary Winkeller White. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a poor neighborhood lawyer until his death in 1931. After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1932, White could not afford to attend college. He found a job selling newspapers on a streetcar—his start in journalism.
After working two years as a newsboy and Hebrew teacher, White enrolled at Harvard in 1934 with the help of a scholarship from Harvard and a grant from the Newsboy Foundation. He studied Chinese and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in history. Awarded a travelling fellowship, he arranged to write articles for the Boston Globe and headed for the Far East. He sold articles to the Globe and to the Manchester Guardian and obtained a job with the Chinese Information Committee. After witnessing the Japanese bombing of Peking (now Beijing) in 1939 he decided to remain a journalist rather than return to Harvard and become a professor.
While in China White accepted a job as a stringer for Time magazine. He became a staff reporter in 1940. Among his early contacts was the future Communist leader Chou En-lai. In 1941 White moved to New York to become Time's Far East editor, but after the United States entered World War II he returned to Asia as a war correspondent and chief of Time's bureau there. During the war he covered the Honan famine in 1943, followed the internal political struggles in China, interviewed Mao Tse-tung [Zedong], observed the conflict in American war strategies, and reported the formal Japanese surrender above the U.S.S. Missourion September 2, 1945.
After the war White's unfavorable opinion of the nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-chek, whom Time publisher Henry Luce admired, led to a break with Time magazine. White elaborated his own views of China in a book, Thunder Out of China (written with Annalee Jacoby), which was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and became an immediate best-seller in 1946. He served briefly as an editor of The New Republic magazine, but found the demands of Henry Wallace too restricting. White edited the papers of Gen. Joseph Stilwell whom he had met in China and respected.
Given the political atmosphere in America in the early Cold War years, White's stand on China was considered radical, and he found the pages of major publications closed to his writings. With the sizable amount of money he received for Thunder Out of China he left for Paris to work for the Overseas News Agency. When the agency went broke, he became a free-lance writer and then in 1951 the chief European correspondent for The Reporter magazine. He spent over five years in Europe covering the major post-war stories, the economic recovery program (the Marshall Plan), and the formation of a Western military defense alliance (NATO). He wrote a book summarizing his European experience, Fire in the Ashes, which was also accepted by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
White returned to the United States in 1953 to concentrate on American politics. Almost immediately he became a victim of the politics of the McCarthy era for defending his old China friend John Patton Davies, who was under investigation by the State Department. White found himself targeted and had his passport temporarily revoked. The experience not only frightened him but also inhibited him (which he later regretted) from writing again about foreign policy or defense issues. In 1954 he became national political correspondent for The Reporter and then for the mass magazine Colliers. He wrote stories on a wide range of topics, including aviation and the emerging national highway system.
When Colliers folded in late 1956, as the growing popularity of television undermined the market for general-interest periodicals, White was unable to find a job in journalism he liked. He turned to fiction and wrote two best-selling novels. The Mountain Road, set in China, was accepted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and was made into a movie. His second book, The View From the Fortieth Floor, depicted his experience at Colliers. It was a Literary Guild selection, and the film rights were sold to the actor Gary Cooper for $80,000.
With his financial independence temporarily secure, White embarked on the major project of his career, a study of presidential campaigns, which earned him respect as a political reporter and as a contemporary historian. He chose to view presidential elections as a dramatic story—with an eye for anecdotal details and an awareness of historical themes—in books that would be published after the votes were counted. Auspiciously he began his quest with the 1960 presidential election which featured a ready-made hero—John Kennedy—and villain—Richard Nixon. Journalistically, he had the field to himself as the media tended to ignore primaries.
His book, The Making of the President—1960, was enormously successful. Combining a novelist's skill for storytelling with an historian's sense of the wider significance, White initiated a new genre of political reporting. Another Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the book sold over four million copies and earned him about half a million dollars. With his accomplishment, presidential campaigns would never be the same again for either the news media or the candidates.
White regarded Kennedy not only as a personal hero but as a watershed figure in American politics. In the aftermath of Kennedy's death, White met with Jacqueline Kennedy at her request and in an article for LIFE magazine attached the label "Camelot" to the Kennedy myth. Looking back, White pointed to Kennedy's assassination as the moment of division in American politics between a period of stability and what he called the stormy era. Yet, despite the turbulence of the later stage, White remained a fascinated and optimistic observer of American politicians.
White continued his coverage of elections with books on the 1964, 1968, and 1972 campaigns. After President Nixon's resignation he wrote Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. He skipped the 1976 campaign while he wrote his autobiography, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure. White's later effort, America in Search of Itself (1982), focused on the 1980 campaign but also served as a review of 25 years of history, culminating his project.
White received numerous journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize (1962) and two Emmys for his television writing. White had two children by his first wife and lived with his second wife, Beatrice Hofstadter, in Bridgewater, Connecticut. He died in New York City on May 15, 1986, following a stroke.
Further Reading on T. H. White
For biographical information, the best book is White's autobiography, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (1978). To appreciate White's contribution to political literature and presidential elections, read The Making of A President— 1960. For a sense of history and how American politics has changed in the last quarter century in White's view, see America in Search of Itself.