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The Never-Ending War Between the White House and the Press

Holzer focuses on 18 of the 45 presidents and avoids taking sides, although I must say I’ve rarely seen President Bill Clinton so sympathetically portrayed. There will never be peace between the two institutions, Holzer implies, only varying levels of hostility. Students of the presidency and the press may be startled by the stink and temperature of the battle. (Disclosure: I’m cited twice by Holzer, both times neutrally.)

Historically, the press has given it to presidents as hard as it has gotten it. For much of the Republic’s first century, when party control of newspapers was the rule, one set of papers would support the president while a separate set would oppose him — much like the way Fox News and MSNBC have tilted for Trump and Obama, only more so. Early in George Washington’s first term, The National Gazette accused him of “wanting to be a king,” and The Aurora made the baseless claim that he was stealing from the Treasury. Washington did not respond or retaliate, but his private letters abound with rage against the taunting newspapers. Adams, who followed Washington, cataloged the slights committed against him by reporters and did retaliate with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized journalistic dissent in the name of national security. Denied a second term, Adams rightly placed a portion of the blame for his defeat on the press, which defied his attempts at control. Once out of office, he complained that party-aligned newspapers kept their readers in partisan silos. Unexposed to competing ideas, readers came to think of every issue as a litmus test of party loyalty.

Holzer’s best chapters are the ones on Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. An accomplished Lincoln scholar, he indicts the 16th president for waging an “undeclared, unlegislated, unlitigated and largely unchallenged war” on newspapers during the Civil War. But this condemnation of Lincoln’s suppressive tactics comes with a sympathetic interpretation of the president’s view that the Union could not be preserved without temporary limits on free speech and a free press. “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch the hair of a wiley [sic] agitator who induces him to desert?” Lincoln wrote in a letter. “I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but, withal, a great mercy.” It’s a tribute to succeeding presidents and to the journalists who resisted the clampdown that the measures were not extended at the close of wartime.

Theodore Roosevelt probably did more to alter president-press relations than anyone who has held the office before or since. Administrations had always steered politically gainful news to reporters, but Roosevelt actively courted journalists. He was the first to give White House reporters working space inside the building, enlisting them in a kind of partnership to create and disseminate news. He staged some of the first photo ops and invented the Sunday news drop, feeding the press a hot story for the Monday editions. The upshot of Roosevelt’s constant flackery, as one reporter of the era put it, was “more scoops of White House origin during the Roosevelt period than before or since.” Presaging Donald Trump, Roosevelt liked to deflect press corps interest in covering bad news by drowning them with racier news of his making. He fully expected to see himself on Page 1 every day.

Since the first Roosevelt, advances in technology have given presidents new ways to circumvent the press. Franklin Roosevelt leapfrogged reporters with his Fireside Chats on radio. (When Los Angeles’s KFI dropped the chats in 1936, calling them “nothing more than campaign speeches,” Roosevelt’s people threatened to lift its re-election advertisements from the station.) John Kennedy burnished his image with television. Ronald Reagan advanced the news management techniques his predecessors had initiated, while Donald Trump has seized every technological advantage he can, from Twitter to cable news to Facebook, to sidestep the press corps’ scrutiny.

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