Two fine writers and democracy

I was supposed to take New Yorker columnist E.B. White up to meet President Roosevelt as he sat at his totem-strewn desk in the White House in December of 1941. But it didn't happen. When I took White's elbow to lead him up through the crowd of reporters for the polite introduction at the end, he balked. He wasn't going through with it. I couldn't understand what was happening to this shy, tensely wrought, fey man (who I think then as now writes the best essays in the English Language). I am reminded by a new book, Scott Elledge's ''E.B. White: a Biography,'' that this reluctance is a protective device that he had produced to guard his privacy at certain moments of his career. This press conference was the last one Roosevelt gave before Pearl Harbor. The world changed overnight.

Another book reminds me that during the election campaign of 1948 The New Yorker magazine sent the late Richard H. Rovere to cover the final part of the famous whistle-stop campaign of Harry Truman. (''Final Reports: Personal Reflections on Politics and History in Our Times'').

Rovere, a superb reporter, came to Washington, joined the press on the Truman special (the ''Ferdinand Magellan''), and met the 50 or so traveling reporters. His description recalled the exhilaration of those lost days. Everybody knew, of course, Harry was defeated. News-week polled 50 reporters, all of whom forecast Dewey's victory. (This reporter did, too.) Elmo Roper said that nothing but a ''political convulsion'' could save Truman and quit polling on Sept. 9 because it was all over.

Reading Rovere brings it back. He says that he ''enjoyed it as much as any reporting experience I ever had.'' We started off in a 16-car special. Truman would make 12 to 14 speeches a day. They were not very good; sometimes he seemed to have difficulty reading the prepared addresses. Then one day he put down his manuscript and talked to the crowd in colloquial language and they suddenly melted. He had them laughing and cheering. Everybody liked him and sympathized with the hopeless fight he was making. Rovere caught the thrill. And at the end, of course, there is Harry Truman gleefully holding aloft the early edition of the Chicago Tribune proclaiming ''Dewey Defeats Truman.''

White and Rovere were certainly two of the best writers that ever came to Washington. They saw the city at war. In July of 1943 the Writers' War Board asked White to help the war effort by writing a statement on ''the meaning of democracy.'' What an opportunity for a banal performance! He avoided it. I thrill when I read it even now.

''Surely the Board knows what democracy is,'' he began disarmingly:

''It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.

''Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog, and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.''

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