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The Press And The Presidents

June 2024
6min read

No Chief Executive has ever made it out of the White House without being scalded

Remember Adm. Bobby Ray Inman? He was the Clinton Secretary of Defense-designate with a short fuse and an even shorter career as a nominee. Named last December, this ex-Pentagon insider with good press contacts was on the fast track to certain confirmation by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Then a few reporters began to ask critical questions, and Inman abruptly withdrew himself from consideration at a press conference in which he lashed out at the savage media sharks whose “new McCarthyism” was making it impossible for decent men and women to consider public-service careers.

Ah, pshaw! I am not the first historian to take word processor in hand and point out that other public officials of every party and persuasion have undergone much harsher scrutiny before and during their tenures in office. Nor the first to wonder where some senior critics of the “new McCarthyism” stood when the old was in flower. But in an issue whose cover story is devoted to the American press, it seems worthwhile to set forth some details of how it and the politicians have dealt with each other in long-previous eras and to put into some perspective, I hope, the question of journalistic standards in dealing with the mighty.

The newspaper press began to show uninhibited impudence toward high officeholders almost as soon as the Constitution took effect. Not even the Father of His Country was exempt. During the period between his election and inauguration George Washington complained to a friend that “the Editors of the different Gazettes in the Union” might be better employed at something useful like publishing the debates in Congress, rather than “stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation.” But he hadn’t seen anything, so to speak, until he actually assumed office. By the end of his second administration the party system had sprung to life, and Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin’s grandson and the editor of an Anti-Federalist paper, was accusing Washington of “ostentatious professions of piety,” “stately journeying through the American continent in search of personal incense,” and “pusillanimous neglect” of the public welfare. He wrote on the day after Washington’s retirement from office that there “ought to be a JUBILEE in the United States.” Bache’s wasn’t a lone voice either. The President ground his teeth and acknowledged that “a disinclination to be longer buffited in t the public prints by a ' set of infamous scribblers,” was one of the reasons for his retirement to private life.

Ardent Federalists accused Thomas Jefferson of prompting attackers like Bache for the benefit of his own Republican party, and when Jefferson ran for President, Federalist papers got back at him in no halfway terms. One of the most resounding blows he took came from a Richmond political writer, James Callender, who denounced Jefferson for fathering illegitimate mulatto children by one of his own slaves, Sally Hemings. Jefferson’s male biographers, for the most part, continue to brand the story false and infamous, but my point in citing it is to illustrate that there isn’t anything new about allegations of sexual transgressions by public men.

Alert readers will note that so far I am drawing my examples from press coverage of Presidents, and outstanding ones at that. I do so to reinforce a point. When the best and greatest are maligned, appointees of lesser stature can hardly expect to be immune. If we take a giant step forward to another giant, Andrew Jackson, we find that in 1828 he was accused in the public prints of being a murderer because while a general in the Army he had summarily executed six militiamen under his command i and two Britons who traded with the Indians of Florida.

The facts were not in dispute, merely their interpretation, and these charges did not sting as much as another one brought by a Cincinnati editor and publisher, Charles Hammond. “Ought a convicted adulteress U? and her paramour husband,” asked Hammond, “to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” He was referring to the circumstances of Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Robards, whose divorce from her first husband was, unbeknownst to her, technically incomplete at the time of her second wedding. Jackson never lost the conviction that Rachel’s death before he assumed office was hastened by depression over the slander. A Jackson supporter believed it “doubtful if any other Presidential contest was ever pitched on so low a plane,” but it is arguable that the record did not stand long. In 1836, during Martin Van Buren’s run for the White House, the inimitable Davy Crockett depicted him in the Senate chamber “laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and if possible tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.”

Even casual readers of American history know that Lincoln was belabored with such epithets as “third-rate country lawyer,” raconteur of “coarse and clumsy jokes,” and “African gorilla.” Less familiar is the fact that he was struck at (somewhat like Jackson) through the First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln was suspected by the House Judiciary Committee of having leaked the still-unreleased contents of a presidential message to Congress to a reporter who earned her confidence by liberal flattery. Ugly rumors also were launched that she let military secrets slip to the Confederacy through correspondence with some of her Southern relatives. Compared with that, Hillarybashing seems almost innocuous.

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.”

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