The Press as Presidential Antagonist: A Late 20th Century Retrospective

By Liebovich, Louis W. | National Forum, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Press as Presidential Antagonist: A Late 20th Century Retrospective


Liebovich, Louis W., National Forum


In late October 1962 the United States confronted the Soviet Union over the impending construction of Soviet nuclear-missile sites in Cuba, bringing the world closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust than at any other time in history. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was so humiliated by the loss of prestige that he was forced to resign less than two years later. At the same time, U.S. President John F. Kennedy drew such acclaim for his hard-line tactics that he finally added the respect and admiration of veteran Washington insiders, including long-time Washington correspondents, to his public popularity. This universal admiration for Kennedy elevated the office of the president to its pinnacle. Though no destructive world war resulted, the crisis did spawn rather curious and long-lasting, unintended side effects.

When Kennedy was assassinated thirteen months later, his death ended a succession of popular and strong presidents who have been celebrated in scholarly books and in more popular accounts, and left a legacy of personal politics to which succeeding presidents could not conform. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and ending with Kennedy, the presidency had been strengthened almost continuously for sixty-two years, as had the role of the press in affecting national public policy and the presidency. Not all chief executives during this period were celebrated. Warren Harding, a newspaper publisher by trade, was one of the least effective presidents of all time. His heirs, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, similarly are rated among the nation's least effective chief executives, and not all presidents, even those rated by historians as notable, were popular with the press, either. But the most renowned ones recognized that good or, at the very least, tolerable relations with news media were necessary to promote programs and influence the Congress and the public. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John E Kennedy have all been ranked among the most successful presidents in history, and each either was able to charm reporters or had press officers who served as effective intermediaries. But if 1962 was the zenith of the presidency, the euphoria quickly eroded after the assassination, ending the public's love affair. Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy and is highly rated by historians. Yet, he failed to establish positive press relations and was driven from office by a negative image and an unpopular war that was depicted graphically on television news nightly, illustrating that legislative achievement in modern times is not always accompanied by public acclaim. Richard Nixon and Watergate followed, and, by the mid-1970s, contentious give-and,take press relations had been replaced by pure antagonism. As we enter the twenty-first century, the situation has not improved, but instead has deteriorated. Public policy, public awareness of issues and events, and the popularity of both press and president have suffered.

CAUSES OF PRESS ANTAGONISM How did this occur? How is it that between 1962 and 1974 we evolved from presidential worship to widespread scorn? Vietnam and Watergate are only parts of the answer. The downswing is a complex mosaic of changed technology, altered social mores, a reinvented White House press office, adjusted perceptions by reporters and editors, altered press strategies, and public skepticism followed by popular indifference.

Problems in the White House began almost immediately after Kennedy's death. Johnson alternately tried to bully and coddle reporters with little success. The War in Southeast Asia and the fabricated statements and figures issued continuously by the White House were only part of the failure with the press of his administration. As the last in a string of presidents who had popularized the presidency, Kennedy took fame to a different level. As the missile crisis indicates, Kennedy (also his wife, Jacqueline, at times) was more adept at popularizing and personalizing than he was at establishing effective policy. …

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