The Press And The Presidents

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Thanks to President Grant’s venerated status as the victor of Appomattox, even partisan editors tended to excuse him from personal involvement in the scandals that shadowed his administration, but otherwise he was an open target. Harper’s Weekly ran a cartoon of him that was captioned: “The drunken Democrat whom the Republicans dragged out of the Galena gutter, besmeared with the blood of his countrymen slain in domestic broil, and lifted to a high pedestal as Moloch of their worship.” Grant’s previous alcoholism was the only vulnerable spot in his otherwise exemplary domestic life. But the bachelor Grover Cleveland was accused during the 1884 campaign of having fathered a bastard child, which he had in fact done. Cleveland earns a special place in my pantheon for having simply told the truth immediately, gotten on with business, and won the election. You would think some Presidents might have profited by the example.

If we fast-forward to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an interesting contradiction pops up. Most of the nation’s leading newspaper publishers opposed him, and their editorial columns routinely accused him of dragging the country down the road to socialism, conspiring to involve the nation in war, creating an Executive dictatorship, and other crimes and misdemeanors. But even while robustly answering back, Roosevelt kept up generally good relations with members of the working press. He held more press conferences than any President in the century: eighty-three in 1933, for example, and ninety-six in 1940, compared with the four or five a year of recent incumbents. And while he occasionally scolded reporters individually and collectively, he understood their professional requirements, fed them usable headlines, stories, and “slants,” acted as if he respected the importance of their jobs, and did not take personal umbrage at sharp questions that he had no intention of answering. He seemed to regard it as a genial contest: he trying to shape the news and they trying to trap him into impolitic disclosure—a mutual and sometimes even enjoyable game.

Mary Lincoln was accused of aiding the Confederacy: Hillary-bashing seems almost innocuous by comparison.

Which brings up a major point. The relationship between President (and other public figures) and the media of their eras has always been a two-way street. The “victims” of press abuse were not passive targets. In their turn they tried to manipulate the news in their favor. Jefferson and Jackson sponsored party newspapers that, without pretense of impartiality, gave readers the view from the White House. Political bosses, business leaders, generals, and an array of officeholders learned to favor pet reporters; not one of them ever did (or ever has) denounced the wicked influence of the press when the “spin” was in his or her direction. The modern President-press relationship was rendered into an art form by Theodore Roosevelt, who was, in the words of his aide Archie Butt, “his own press agent” and saw that “nothing went out from the White House except as the President wanted it.” And, Butt went on in a singularly prescient observation for 1909, when reporters could not find out much about the political intentions of the President or his cabinet, they turned their attention “to the class of news known as bedroom politics.”

This is not to deny the existence of tasteless and trashy journalism, or the intrusive and repetitive power of television, which magnifies the impact of allegations about sex and sleaze in high places possibly beyond the imaginations of old-fashioned scandalmongers from the days of the partisan and the tabloid press. But by the same token, electronic journalism enhances the power of spin doctors, flacks, and media consultants to obfuscate and conceal and to clothe a great many naked emperors. We need the balance, and candidates and nominees need to know it and stop whining. I think Jefferson ought to have the last word. Though he was himself rather free in encouraging libel suits against opponents, he observed in 1786 that while it was hard for a public personage to “have his peace of mind . . . disturbed by any individual who shall think proper to arraign him in a newspaper,” it was “an evil for which there is no remedy, our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. To the sacrifice of time, labor, fortune, a public servant must count upon adding that of peace of mind and even reputation. And all this is preferable to European bondage.”