"Nonpublicity" and the Unmaking of a President: William Howard Taft and the Ballinger-Pinchot Controversy of 1909-1910

Article excerpt

William Howard Taft may have been the last American President to take office without intending to seek public support by cultivating the press. During his single term, from 1909 to 1913, he eschewed the tactics of managing presidential news coverage so vigorously applied by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his successor, Woodrow Wilson.(1) Instead, Taft preferred a laissez-faire approach to public opinion, based on the notion that his accomplishments would speak for themselves. In a rare magazine interview in 1910, he stated that "what I hope for my administration is the accomplishment of definite results, which will be self-explanatory."(2) Richard A. Ballinger, Taft's Secretary of Interior, called the approach one of "nonpublicity."(3)

Taft's hands-off approach toward presidential publicity and his subsequent failure to win re-election have been attributed variously to his ineptness at politics, ignorance of the press, inability to visualize himself as a public person, and general failure to live up to the expectations of presidential behavior established by Roosevelt.(4) Biographer Henry F. Pringle argues that "Taft's ultimate defeat was caused, in no small measure, by these repeated incessant headlines which, try as he might, he could not guide or control."(5) Other scholars suggest that Taft's reluctance to manage the press was rooted in his minimalist, late-nineteenth-century view of the presidency itself.(6)

This study assumes that, whatever its origins, nonpublicity was a deliberate choice by Taft, one whose outlines and consequences are as worthy of examination as presidential attempts at managing the press to influence public opinion.(7) The focus of the inquiry is Taft's relationship with the Washington, D.C., correspondents during his first year as President, beginning in March 1909, and, particularly, on Taft's refusal to respond to highly publicized charges of corruption directed at Secretary of Interior Ballinger by the forester Gifford Pinchot and other progressive critics.(8)

It suggests that the consequences of Taft's policy of nonpublicity were indicative of profound changes taking place in the relationship between presidents and the press early in the twentieth century. In not trying to cultivate the Washington, D.C., correspondents, Taft failed to conform to the expectations of a new relationship between presidents and the press established during the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley, who became President in 1897, and Roosevelt, who succeeded him in 1901, encouraged the growth of a nascent White House press corps. To interest these correspondents in the presidency as a source of news--and to shape that news from the President's perspective--McKinley and Roosevelt established practices that formed the basis for an institutionalized relationship.(9) These practices included supplying the correspondents with information and guidance for news stories, both on a regularly scheduled basis and on demand; providing advance copies of speeches and statements; arranging frequent opportunities to chat with the President, even if off the record, and producing news on presidential trips and at summer retreats. Under Roosevelt, who was, as his admiring aide, Archie Butt, remarked, "his own press agent," the flow of information from the President to the correspondents increased dramatically. In addition to The Editor and Publisher, April 17, 1909 telling the correspondents his views, Roosevelt also guided what they wrote by telling them what the news was and how they should prepare it.(10)

To take advantage of this growing supply of news from the White House, the correspondents established parallel working practices to listen to what the President or his secretary wanted to tell them, to compose that information into news stories, and to pass those stories along to their editors. The White House became a regular "beat," an addition to the late nineteenth century focus on Congress. …