In this evenhanded portrait of two egocentric personalities, one a former “mishkid” (child of Presbyterian missionaries in China), the other a Harvard “meatball” (Jewish subway-commuter), Henry R. Luce first appears to be the heavy and Theodore H. White the hero, fighting to maintain his integrity while working for an impossibly opinionated publisher. Both men were prone to hero worship: Luce greatly admired Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, and Dwight D. Eisenhower; White’s heroes were Joseph Stilwell, Chou En-lai, and John F. Kennedy. Surprisingly, Luce emerges as the more sympathetic figure. In a state-dinner scene from Luce’s two-year interlude in Rome as the spouse of American Ambassador Clare Booth Luce, the mogul sits uncomplainingly at the far end of the table next to envoys from Belgium and Indonesia, and picks up information tidbits to pass on to his editors.
The most chilling scene in this cautionary Cold War tale finds anonymous inquisitors grilling White about his association with controversial “China hand” John Paton Davies and then placing limitations on his passport. Like many liberals, White henceforth muzzled himself rather than risk being red- baited. His subsequent MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT series in the end became a parody of itself. He once stopped the presses of LIFE to include nothing more earthshaking than the musing of Jackie Kennedy comparing the “Thousand Days” to Camelot.
Not particularly gossipy and thinly researched, Griffith’s work could have benefitted from a better editor (he has FDR abandoning Vice President Henry Wallace for Harry Truman in 1948 and incorrectly categorizes White’s BREACH OF FAITH as sympathetic to Richard M. Nixon). Nevertheless, Griffith sticks admirably to his central story of two protagonists who had an enduring impact on the personal style of American journalism.