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Executive session

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On Saturday, November 20, a dozen seasoned students of the U.S. presidency—former White House correspondents, presidential biographers, past advisors to presidents—met before the cameras of C-Span on the stage of Boston College's Robsham Theater for conversation. Their topic was "The Shifting Fortunes of Presidential Reputations," and more pointedly, the relationship between American presidents and the press; the effect of a president's moral character on an administration; and presidents and their enemies. The event was sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. A sampler from the afternoon's discussion follows.

T.R. opened the door
Kathleen Dalton
The celebrity press
Ellen Hume
"How dare you ask our president"
Tom Wicker
On reporting lies
Jack Beatty
Lyndon Johnson's greatness
Ronald Walters
The founding gentleman
Susan Dunn
Why Lincoln was a yahoo
Douglas L. Wilson
Is there morality in compromise?
David Gergen
When politics was a blood sport
Joyce Appleby
Presidents who see enemies
David Halberstam
Parties, parliaments, and resurrecting the third term
James Macgregor Burns
The enemies list revisited
John Dean

PRESIDENTS AND THE PRESS

T.R. opened the door
Kathleen Dalton

I'm doing historical therapy here today. It's important to remember that we've been through polarized times before and the republic survived. A very partisan press existed early on in American history. One party would have a newspaper and the other party would have a newspaper, and they would produce news that was Whig or Democrat. So, to people today who are upset about Fox News: The dynamic is not new. In the 19th century, citizens got lots of news from their own political party, from their neighbors, and from other sources.

The watchdog press is a creature of more recent times. Not until the late 1890s, when reporters started to pay attention to whom Grover Cleveland was visiting and who went to the White House, was the White House covered systematically. Theodore Roosevelt created the first pressroom in the White House. He saw a bunch of reporters standing outside freezing, and he said, "Come on in." T.R. tried to make friends with the press. That's not to say that he didn't punish them if they wrote nasty stories about his children chasing turkeys and massacring animals or roller-skating through the East Room and ruining the floor. For that, he would prohibit a reporter from the White House.

T.R. enjoyed mixing it up with reporters, but he had favorites. He'd invite them in for exclusive interviews while he was being shaved, and would go on hikes with them and make them his buddies—as long as they wrote the story he liked.

Franklin Roosevelt, for his part, gave over 900 press conferences. A master of politics, he was very concerned about shifting American public opinion in order to be ready to fight Hitler, because America was not ready and was inclined toward not fighting after World War I. He got the syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson to write interventionist stories and encouraged her to tell the truth about Hitler and Mussolini on the radio.

So there have been times when presidents were not in an adversarial relationship with the press, and times when presidents punished their critics and tried to manipulate the news.


Kathleen Dalton is Cecil F.P. Bancroft Instructor in History and Social Science at Phillips Academy, Andover, and the author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (2002).

 

The celebrity press
Ellen Hume

While we can be fairly certain about who the president is from day to day, the identification of a journalist is not so easy. Journalists have appeared as pamphleteers, documentarians, White House correspondents, talk show pundits, and now bloggers on the Internet. In the modern era, the press has been viewed as the gatekeeper of our attention, which has been a challenge for presidents. But that has recently been shifting in this Internet, cable TV age.

In order to survive in a talk show culture with hundreds if not thousands of competing voices, journalists must become celebrities in their own right. And if a journalist has to be popular, then he or she is unlikely to ask the tough questions, challenge popular lies, or try to focus our attention on the bad news in Sudan or Iraq.

The journalistic ideal of dispassionate fact-gathering was always impossible to fulfill, though worthy of the attempt. But there are few incentives in this balkanized media landscape for fact-based news to continue. The professional journalists have lost their clout. The power has shifted to the president and his allies.

So what are the implications? In his first term, George W. Bush had fewer press conferences by far than his recent predecessors of both parties. The New York Times, which is arguably the paper of record, was denied interviews with the president and was barred from the vice president's plane. A Washington Post reporter was similarly blackballed when he wrote that the president was not telling the truth. Journalists who serve as cheerleaders for the government and fail to raise serious questions that hold the government accountable are gaining in influence.


Ellen Hume is the director of the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She reported from Washington for the Los Angeles Times (1977–83) and covered the White House for the Wall Street Journal (1983–88).

 

"How dare you ask our president"
Tom Wicker

I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but I don't think there's anything new about the press not doing what it ought to do as a so-called watchdog.

I first started covering the White House in 1961. The New York Times did not issue an apologia, as it should have, for the fact that we didn't know anything about President Kennedy's sex life. Neither did I. The New York Times did not issue an apologia, as it should have, for not reporting anything of any importance about President Kennedy's health. Neither did I. The Washington Post didn't either. The New York Times did not issue any kind of an apology in 1944 for not covering at all one of the great scandals in American history—that President Roosevelt was too sick to run, and he knew it.

I think the problem, more often that not, is that the press has tended to be a handout press. And then something happens like Watergate or the war in Vietnam or the war in Iraq, and everybody says, "Oh, gee, I'm sorry. I wish I had done my job," and it changes.

The president has the upper hand all the time unless he chooses not to exercise it, because the president occupies a particular position in our society—not unlike the queen of England. At the height of Kennedy's popularity, I'd stand up in the front row at his news conference and ask a mildly hostile question, and I'd get a sharp answer. And in the next few days I would get a lot of mail: How dare you ask our president a question like that? I'm telling you, if you want to take issue with the president, you'd better be prepared to hear about it from the public.

It's fine in the textbooks to be the watchdog, and that's something that publishers pay lip service to. But you can stand up against the president and all of a sudden you're out there alone and your editor calls you in. Newspaper editors don't like to stand alone.

So if you're depending on the press to hold anyone's feet to the fire, you're leaning on a weak reed. The press just doesn't do that kind of thing, or very rarely does.


Tom Wicker is a former White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief, and columnist for the New York Times. His books include George Herbert Walker Bush (2004) and One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991).

 

On reporting lies
Jack Beatty

The University of Maryland conducted a large poll of self-identified Bush supporters, shortly before the 2004 election. The researchers found that more than 50 percent of them believed that George W. Bush supported the Kyoto protocols. Something like 70 percent of them believed that he had signed the treaty banning land mines. More than 70 percent believed that either weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq or were about to be made. In other words, a year and more of reporting went out the window.

FactCheck.org, which is run by the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, tallied up all of the distortions by both presidential candidates. John Kerry made his share. But nothing to compare to the systematic falsehoods that came out of the mouths of George Bush and Dick Cheney. And how did the press report those? It just passed them on.

The press has two roles—to play the mirror and to play the lamp. And increasingly, it's played the mirror: "Here's what the White House says. Here's what the candidate says." Not the lamp: "Here's the real truth."

It is a sign of the times that our two papers of record, the Washington Post and the New York Times, had to run front page mea culpas about their coverage of the lead-in to the Iraq war, about their failure to rebut and to find alternative sources of information to set in a parenthesis of skepticism the claims the Bush administration was making. In the case of the Times, their reporter had the same source about Iraqi weapons who was misleading the Pentagon, an ally of the anti-Hussein Ahmed Chalabi. This was a failure of our central institutions—as if the artillery of the press were turned around and fired at us, not at power.

It is partly the tradition of objectivity in journalism that has gotten us into this fix. And so I think, let's have an adversarial relationship, to save us from more folly.


Jack Beatty is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly and author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1998).

PRESIDENTS AND MORALITY

Lyndon Johnson's greatness
Ronald Walters

Looking at the way in which African-Americans have tried to enter American society affords a unique perspective for judging presidents. The fact is that George Washington did not exercise a lot of moral, personal leadership with respect to the great questions having to do with slavery and African-Americans. He was not a hands-on leader. He let the passions flow. That may have been shrewd, because out of this approach came a negotiated Constitution, a sort of negotiated nation. But in the negotiation, Washington didn't play a major role, even with respect to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—the crisis of his career—when there was a question about whether or not to extend slavery to the territory.

Lincoln, I think, was pretty much in the same vein. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tactical move. Lincoln called Frederick Douglass in to try to get African-Americans to fight on the side of the Union. He was consumed by the necessity of keeping a war going. The condition of blacks was secondary.

If you simply let the fox and the chicken fight, anything is liable to happen. That's why I think Lyndon Johnson was a great president—Johnson exercised real leadership. Johnson responded to the civil rights movement as early as 1957—Robert Caro's The Master of the Senate shows this. If the country had put the civil rights agenda to a survey then, I think African-Americans would still be sitting outside of society. But Johnson began to move away from being consumed by tactical considerations and negotiating postures and became a student of Martin Luther King, Jr. He began to believe. At the end of the day, it takes someone with vision to say we have to go in the direction of justice.


Ronald Walters is a professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland and the author of Black Presidential Politics in America (1988).

 

The founding gentleman
Susan Dunn

When George Washington became president in 1789, there was only the paper shell of the Constitution. People didn't have a sense of nationhood. They were loyal to Virginia, to Massachusetts, to Connecticut. It was Washington who had to breathe life into the Constitution and to build citizens' loyalties to this new entity, the United States. And he did that via his own character. He incarnated the nation through his courage, his commitment to national unity, and his confidence in human rationality.

Washington was an Enlightenment man—a deist and not a churchgoer—who believed in using reason to help people pursue happiness. He believed in reason enough to know that it is fallible. This made him less dogmatic about his own opinions and very open to the ideas of others. All the founders possessed that tolerance and moderation. This comes especially to the fore when you compare them with revolutionaries in France. Just when Washington was beginning his second term in 1793, the King of France, Louis XVI, was being beheaded. Radical revolutionaries in France did not tolerate dissent and guillotined their adversaries and even their former allies. They thought they were creating what we would call a one-party democracy that banishes opposition. It's interesting that Washington himself was opposed to political parties. He was upset when there was dissension in his cabinet, when he was attacked in the press, and when an opposition party formed in Congress. But fortunately he did nothing about it, he took no action to eliminate dissent. His genius, and the genius of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, was self-restraint. They were gentlemen founders.


Susan Dunn is a professor of humanities at Williams College. Her latest book is Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism (2004).

 

Why Lincoln was a yahoo
Douglas L. Wilson

Lincoln had to start from a place almost the opposite of Washington. He was the minority president. He was not well-known. He was not first in the hearts of his countrymen. He had to establish his credentials—his moral character—before he could be believed.

What I admire about him is that he simply started with what he was given. He looked funny. He was from a backwoods state. And quickly the image of Lincoln became that of a rube. In fact, he was a cultivated, self-made, self-educated man, and he could have tried to persuade people that he was clever and sophisticated, but he didn't. Instead, when he met with cultivated New Yorkers, he would tell stories in his Hoosier dialect. George Templeton Strong, whose diary tells us much about the nation's mood during the war, had several meetings with Lincoln. He came back from the first one, and he wrote, "Lincoln is a yahoo." He related in Lincoln's dialect a story that Lincoln had told. And then Strong said, "But in spite of that, he's a straightforward, sincere, sensible, honest old codger."

I don't think Strong ever figured out that there was a purpose to that yahoo persona, that Lincoln was interested in being known as straightforward and sensible and honest. After the country got that sense of him, Lincoln was able to begin a campaign of direct public address—not through speeches, but through letters, the first of which was the famous letter to the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley that preceded the Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote a series of public letters—some of which his fame depends on—that culminated in one of the few public speeches he gave as president, the Gettysburg Address, in November 1863.

If you had asked Americans in 1863 what's the most important value talked about in the Declaration of Independence, they would have said liberty. Lincoln could have used liberty as his theme in the Gettysburg Address. But instead he chose equality. I think he did that deliberately and for a reason. And it's made all the difference. It's become part of our self-image, transforming what the nation is about.


Douglas L. Wilson is a professor emeritus of English and codirector of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois. He is the author of Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998).

 

Is there morality in compromise?
David Gergen

George Washington said, as he was approaching the presidency, that we now have to put a stamp of character upon the nation. He had worked his entire life to develop his own character, and he wanted now to develop the national character. Washington, perhaps foremost among our presidents, thought deeply and acted upon a set of ideas relating to character.

But was Lincoln a moral leader—even though he decided he could not push rapidly forward with emancipation because he would lose the slave states that had not gone over to the Confederacy? This is one of the hardest questions of moral leadership, it seems to me: when you make compromises that are short of your principles, but you do it for some larger good.

In his private life, Herbert Hoover was certainly one of the most moral men we've had in the office. He was a real Boy Scout. And yet he was a failure as president. I don't think FDR's private life would win high accolades for moral character. And in his public life also he was devious—he lied in the buildup to the Second World War. But who was the better leader for the country?

When we talk about moral leadership today we ask, "Has the person got good values?" And certainly, we want to encourage moral character in the private lives of leaders. But we should accept the fact that people are human and will be flawed. Machiavelli lives in public life and may even need to be embraced to achieve certain ends. But the highest level of moral leadership is that which calls forth our highest aspirations—in Lincoln's phrase, the better angels of our nature—and inspires us to live at a higher plane. Our best moral leaders have helped us live in new ways.


David Gergen is editor-at-large at US News & World Report and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He served in the administrations of presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, and is the author of Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton (2000).

PRESIDENTS AND ENEMIES

When politics was a blood sport
Joyce Appleby

Political parties create enemies. The founding fathers had known that there would be differences of opinion, as there were with the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, but they did not anticipate organized parties. Nor were they prepared for them psychologically or intellectually. The founders were trained as politicians in an era when political discussion was a decorous affair behind closed doors.

Thomas Jefferson opened those doors when he set out to animate and organize the public to oppose George Washington's policies. Swiftly, newspapers were created that published bold critiques of the Federalists. They were often scurrilous and reviling in their attacks. They leaked state secrets. They threw out to the public issues that had formerly been discussed only by those in the leadership group. And in the process they created an intolerable situation for most of the men in political life. In the closing seven years of the 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th, men who together had fought in arms in the Continental Army, who had been delegates to the Continental Congress, would cross the street rather than give hat service to one another, so deep were the divisions.

The most telling development of this period was dueling. Alexander Hamilton's fatal duel with Burr was but one of many duels. Hamilton's son had been killed in a duel the year before, for mocking a Jeffersonian speech. A newspaper in Delaware in 1824 estimated that 100 men had been killed by duel. That doesn't count the ones who were wounded or the challenges that were somehow mediated.

Dueling had been introduced by the French, German, and English officers who fought in the Continental Army. With them, dueling was a question of honor, mainly to do with gambling or women. What was remarkable about dueling in the United States was that three-quarters of the duels were about politics. There was even a dueling field in Bladensburg, Maryland, that was called the Congressional Dueling Grounds.

What this phenomenon tells me is that a necessary part of the democratization of American politics, the concept of issue—of a subject upon which good men may disagree—had yet to be cultivated. It seems to me that we now again have tremendous acrimony in politics, and that we're going to have to figure out ways to recover an appreciation of issues and the disputes they stir among honest debaters.


Joyce Appleby is a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, codirector of the History News Service, and the author of Thomas Jefferson (2003).

 

Presidents who see enemies
David Halberstam

I have good credentials for this topic, "the president and his enemies." I went two for three on presidents: John Kennedy asked the New York Times publisher to pull me out of Vietnam when I was there in 1963, and Lyndon Johnson said that my colleague Neil Sheehan and I were traitors to our country. Regrettably, I did not make the Nixon enemies list. That would have given me the hat trick.

We can divide our topic into genuine enemies that presidents have and the self-inflicted wounds of presidents who out of their paranoia create enemies where enemies don't exist. Nixon seemed psychologically to need people to be against him—the East Coast people who had gone to East Coast colleges, for instance.

It strikes me that in the evolution of the presidency—and in the parallel evolution of America from a great power into a hyperpower—the pressures on the president have become almost unbearable. At the same time, the process to get to the presidency is so hyped up. I wonder, are we picking people who by their nature are more egocentric and therefore more likely to personalize things with adversaries?


David Halberstam received a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of the Vietnam War in the New York Times. His War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals was a runner-up for the Pulitzer in 2002.

 

Parties, parliaments, and resurrecting the third term
James Macgregor Burns

I will outrage you by saying that I believe in conflict. I believe in polarization. I think we should have more polarization, but everything depends on how we define those terms.

Part of the problem with the American presidency is the personalization of it, and the fact that it is missing the most important quality of leadership in a democracy: shared leadership. We're watching a situation today where, because there is one-party control, we're not getting the kind of opposition needed. What we need in this country is more collective leadership at the national level (and perhaps the other levels) and, at the same time, a stronger opposition.

Political scientists have been talking for decades about the decline of political parties. We've lost an important strengthening and stabilizing aspect of the American presidency, the kind of capacity that European parliamentary democracies have, where typically a prime minister has solid backing in his party, a great deal of shared leadership in the cabinet, and always the need to deal with an opposition in parliament that is articulate and provides a choice.

Before the 2004 election, everybody was touting a great increase in voter turnout. Well, the last statistic I heard is that the turnout percentage was in the upper 50s, maybe 60. Why, after a whole year of hullabaloo, did 40 to 45 percent of the people not vote? I think if you asked most of them, they would say, "It doesn't matter." The study of leadership is very much a study of followership. In this country, we don't have a mechanism that allows leaders to institutionalize support; we haven't yet found the secret of developing strong participatory democratic parties.

I'd like to add a P.S. It seems to me that the 22nd Amendment ("No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice") automatically created a presidency that is not going to be tested at the polls. We may not typically want presidents to serve three terms. But we will want presidents who, in their second term, think they might want to serve a third. I favor repeal of the anti-third-term amendment.


James MacGregor Burns is a professor emeritus of history at Williams College and the author of the FDR biographies Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956) and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1970), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. His book Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness was published in 2003.

 

The enemies list revisited
John Dean

In the 30-some years since my Senate testimony revealed the existence of a so-called enemies list purportedly kept by Richard Nixon, I don't think the record of what really happened has ever been corrected by historians. To the best of my knowledge, Richard Nixon was unaware of the enemies list.

The enemies list was prepared by George Bell, who worked in special counsel Chuck Colson's office as a dollar-a-year consultant. This is not to say that Richard Nixon didn't believe he had enemies. And he certainly had his fair share. There was a small, refined list developed by Colson, but Nixon didn't have the literal long list that emerged as a result of my testimony, when the collections of names that Bell had gathered became incorporated into the so-called enemies list.

Having been something of a student of the presidency, and having been inside the operation, one can draw certain conclusions about who might be the natural enemies of presidents and their reputations. And I think I'm sitting on a panel with them: historians and journalists. Warren Harding's enemies, for instance, were primarily journalists, but not until he left office. Nixon, ironically, proved to be his own worst enemy. In his tapes—another 1,000 hours of which are yet to be released—Nixon's personality, his governing style, his entire operation are revealed to the world as no presidency ever was before. We're inside the sausage-making machine, and the way it is ground out is not always very attractive.

An interesting shift took place in the Nixon White House. When I first went in as White House counsel, there was a pretty open policy for working with the Congress and providing documents and things of that nature—same with the press office. The leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in June 1971, however, was a defining moment in the Nixon presidency—every bit as defining as 9/11 would be to the Bush presidency. That's when Nixon really increased the number of people he perceived as his enemies. That's when you saw creation of the plumber's unit, and when Nixon took extreme and illegal actions that he wanted to justify in the name of national security, and we got, truly, the imperial presidency, unchecked and gone wild.


John Dean served as counsel to the president in the Nixon White House and is the author of Warren G. Harding (2004) and Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004).

 

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