Pres­i­dents’ feuds with press date back to Wash­ing­ton

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE -

The re­cent pass­ing of Cokie Roberts marks a sub­stan­tial loss to the world of jour­nal­ism. About this loss, Pres­i­dent Trump re­marked, “I would like to wish her fam­ily well. She was a pro­fes­sional, and I re­spect pro­fes­sion­als. I re­spect you guys a lot, you peo­ple [the press] a lot. She was a real pro­fes­sional. Never treated me well, but I cer­tainly re­spect her as a pro­fes­sional.”

Ar­guably fair?


What peo­ple are more fa­mil­iar with — what most as­so­ciate with the pres­i­dent’s re­la­tion­ship with the press — is less amenable, and his ap­proach more, well, coarse.

In a 2017 press con­fer­ence, Pres­i­dent Trump, de­fended his com­ments about the press corps’ re­port­ing on him. The pres­i­dent stated that he was “not rant­ing and rav­ing,” but con­tin­ued, lament­ing, “I’m just telling you, you’re dis­hon­est peo­ple.”

To the man cur­rently seated in the oval-shaped of­fice sit­u­ated at 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., so many jour­nal­ists are “un­pa­tri­otic” and suf­fer­ing from Trump De­range­ment Syn­drome. To our POTUS — and here comes the afore­men­tioned coarse­ness — much of the press is “a joke.”

Con­de­scend­ingly re­ferred to as “The Tweeter-in-Chief,” Pres­i­dent Trump may fairly be ac­cused of hav­ing made so­cial me­dia mis­steps, many of them dur­ing streams of con­scious­ness in the wee morn­ing hours. A num­ber of these state­ments have led to him battling with those who pur­chase ink by the bar­rel. Folly? Per­haps.

But is ac­ri­mony be­tween a U.S. pres­i­dent and Amer­ica’s Fourth Es­tate any­thing new?


All pres­i­dents — even Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton — have had their snags with the press, Wash­ing­ton’s dis­agree­ments with news­pa­per ed­i­tor Philip Fre­neau be­ing ar­guably the most no­table. Sec­re­tary of State Thomas Jef­fer­son’s notes of an Au­gust 1793 cabi­net meet­ing, dur­ing which Fre­neau’s broad­side, “The Funeral Dirge of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and James Wil­son, King and Judge,” was raised. (Note: Wash­ing­ton did not die un­til 1799; Wil­son in 1798.) Ac­cord­ing to Jef­fer­son, this acer­bic broad­side “in­flamed” Wash­ing­ton to such a height­ened point that the fa­ther of our na­tion could no longer “com­mand him­self” due to “the per­sonal abuse which had been be­stowed on him.”

Af­ter be­ing elected pres­i­dent him­self and un­doubt­edly reel­ing from the Sally Hem­ings af­fair and other mat­ters of state, Thomas Jef­fer­son re­marked in 1807:

“Noth­ing can now be be­lieved which is seen in a news­pa­per. Truth it­self be­comes sus­pi­cious by be­ing put into that pol­luted ve­hi­cle.”

An­drew Jack­son, Amer­ica’s sev­enth pres­i­dent, is prob­a­bly the best com­par­i­son to Trump vis-a-vis pop­ulist stir­rings and his abil­ity to be com­mon in many ways. On that mat­ter, it is worth not­ing what his­tory pro­fes­sor Thomas DiBacco pointed out about An­drew Jack­son. John Quincy Adams, his op­po­nent in the 1824 elec­tion, at­tacked Jack­son for not be­ing able to spell Europe cor­rectly. Jack­son ap­par­ently spelled it “Urope.” Per­haps Jack­son was ahead of his time and was tweet­ing with clumsy thumbs?

Se­ri­ously, how­ever, the main dif­fer­ence was, rather than vil­i­fy­ing the press, Jack­son made many ed­i­tors his ad­vis­ers, mem­bers of his so-called “Kitchen Cabi­net.” Keep your en­e­mies closer, I reckon?

Sev­eral years af­ter leav­ing of­fice, Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man wrote to Dean Ach­e­son, his for­mer sec­re­tary of state, com­plain­ing that, “when the press is friendly to an ad­min­is­tra­tion, the op­po­si­tion has been lied about and treated to the ex­cres­cence of paid pros­ti­tutes of the mind,” defin­ing them as “skill­ful pur­vey­ors of char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion and the theft of good names of public men and pri­vate cit­i­zens.”

On the other side of the coin, there is Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt and a press corps that hid his po­lio-in­duced lame­ness. Ar­guably, the press was dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween the of­fi­cer and the of­fice, main­tain­ing a con­stant re­spect for the lat­ter, re­gard­less of who the for­mer was. And, that was de­spite FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, where he acer­bically as­serted that “the demo­cratic way of life” was “be­ing di­rectly as­sailed … by se­cret spread­ing of poi­sonous pro­pa­ganda by those who seek to de­stroy unity and pro­mote dis­cord in na­tions that are still at peace.”

Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s in­fa­mous tryst with Mon­ica Lewin­sky and busi­ness deal­ings he and Hil­lary were in­volved in led him down a warpath with the press. Query­ing, “what the mean­ing of the word ‘is’ is” dur­ing his grand jury tes­ti­mony prob­a­bly did not help mat­ters.

Maybe there is a les­son to be learned from Larry Speakes, act­ing press sec­re­tary for Ronald Rea­gan. Af­ter Press Sec­re­tary James Brady was shot in 1981, Speakes re­mained act­ing press sec­re­tary un­til 1987. (I know. What an ap­pro­pri­ate name Speakes had for the job.)

I think Speakes spoke what needed say­ing: “Well, any White House is go­ing to want to con­trol the way it com­mu­ni­cates. That’s been around as long as White Houses have been around. We’re just al­ways go­ing to have this ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship.”

It surely is right now. Isn’t it?

Christo­pher Brooks is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at East Strouds­burg Univer­sity.


Many U.S. pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing Richard Nixon, seen here at a White House news con­fer­ence in 1973, had a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia dur­ing their terms in of­fice.

Christo­pher Brooks

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