Theodore White looks at US politics; America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980, by Theodore H. White. New York: Harper & Row. 465 pp. $15.95.
Whatever happened to ''Teddy'' White? And why is he talking this way about America? Could this be the same fellow who wrote four previous upbeat political classics about presidential elections - including the Pulitzer Prize-winning ''The Making of the President 1960''?
There's really no need to panic by all his talk about a ''humiliated nation, '' the ''anguish of modernization,'' and the nation's ''twilight.'' America's premier chronicler of national elections hasn't turned fatalistic. He's just being pensive. ''We will survive. By the year 2,000, we'll have a thriving republic. I just don't see now how we will get there,'' he told this reviewer recently over lunch at Boston's posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Unfortunately, readers wading through the new White epic won't glean this guarded optimism. If you're familar with the predecessors to ''America in Search of Itself,'' you know that the feisty journalist-historian gets a bit glib and cynical about American politics - but he always ends up a staunch believer in the durability of the system.
So why is Teddy's tone so blue now? Well, it's these ''new forces'' in American politics that are getting him down. Among them, a final repudiation of ''Old Country'' politics of the 1950s in favor of the ''wide open'' primaries of the 1980s.
The old bosses, White says, have been replaced by a band of new professionals - mercenaries who know how to manipulate the mass media. The latter's money, he insists, is polluting the political process and withering party loyalties.
This trend, together with television's overreach into the workings of campaigns and a whole new set of voter demographics as a result of mass movement to the nation's Sunbelt, spells distress. Mix in a large lump of ravaging inflation and loss of public confidence about America's leadership abroad, and White sees a blend that leads him to talk of ''twilights.''
There is an escape, however, and there can be ''dawn.'' That is, if ''new policy carries us forward to release us from civil fear and the web of federal control,'' the author allows.
Despite the ''down'' mood (or reflective one), this is an informative, important book. And not so much for its campaign details or pointed profiles of winner Ronald Reagan (''stern yet smiling'') and loser Jimmy Carter (''earnest, pious''); there has been a run of post-election books that have amply done this. But White has the knack of sharing with readers a unique historic and sociological insight into how America got where it is today. This is what raises his analysis a healthy cut above many others.
At the same time, the author probably gives the media, particularly television, too much credit, or blame, for altering the campaign and primary process. He tends to look wistfully back at the old days before the electronic explosion, when a handful of newsmen trudged around in the snows of New Hampshire -- trading yarns, interviewing reluctant New Englanders, and speculating on candidates' futures.
If we should be alarmed about something he is saying, it should probably be the bleak crime figures he cites. Murder, rape, mugging, and robbery, which have multiplied threefold over the past two decades, are vastly changing the quality of life -- and are a ''sharp edged'' political issue, White points out.
The Boston-bred election assessor also appears more than a little disturbed by the appeal made in 1980 by what he calls the Untermensch element of politics: ''The government is cheating you, inflation is stealing away from you the value of your dollars.''
White concludes his volume by rapidly firing a salvo of questions ranging from: ''How can our cities be saved?'' to ''Is it wise for America to continue to be 'chief policeman' in the world's quarrels?'' And he lists as top priorities some type of resolution of the role of money in politics and an assessment of what should be the rightful powers of the presidency. Understandably, nay unfortunately, he offers no answers.
Perhaps this volume seems particularly gloomy because Theodore H. White has gone on record that it is the last of his presidential series. Why? Well, he wants to do other things - write novels and perhaps a book on microprocessing (something he admits he doesn't know anything about but would like to explore).
Some say it's just as well that this is Teddy's political hurrah, given his current tone. But there's still quite a twinkle in the eye of this good-naturedly, portly little fellow when he talks politics. So the hanging up of his spikes may not be all that permanent.