George Washington and the Origins of the American Presidency

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

George Washington: The Origins of Presidential–Press Relations

GRAHAM G. DODDS

The first person to do anything is necessarily afforded a unique opportunity to establish precedents. No matter how remarkable subsequent people are, their actions are inevitably judged in relation to those of the first. This is especially so if the position in question is the new office of the presidency in 1788 and if its initial holder is the national hero George Washington. From the outset of his presidency, Washington appeared to be very much aware of his unique ability to establish important precedents:

Few who are not philosophical spectators…can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation has to act…. In our progress towards political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent. 1

Washington established numerous precedents during his presidency, ranging from Constitutional matters and the nature of the new federal government, to the conduct of foreign affairs and economic policy. He is less well recognized for the important role that he played in establishing precedents for relations between the press and the presidency. Washington was the first to experience things that are now commonplace, such as a shift from positive to negative press and the strategic use of government leaks to the press. Washington sought to establish precedents in executive–press relations, such as presidential distance from critical journalism and respect for a free press, both of which scarcely survived through his own tenure as president.

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