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'A return to normalcy': Former press secretaries weigh in on Psaki
04:28 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Policy Institute at Hunter College, is the author of “The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media from the Founding Fathers to Fake News” (E. P. Dutton 2020). The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

As President Joe Biden completed his first week in office with praise from much of the media, some might wonder how long his press honeymoon can last.

If history is any indication, the answer is: not very long.

Harold Holzer Lincoln scholar headshot

For most of George Washington’s first term, the press in the nation’s capital lavished him with the praise to which the founding father was surely accustomed. Then his own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson – who aligned himself with the opposition party – induced an editor to launch an anti-administration newspaper. Jefferson even provided the journalist with a State Department job to help pay the bills. Jefferson’s self-serving argument was: “No government ought to be free of censors.”

Washington blasted the slanders as “the grossest, and most insidious misrepresentations,” written “in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.” After five years of partisan criticism, he decided he had been “buffited” long enough and declined a third term. In one section of his famous Farewell Address – later deleted – Washington blamed the “Gazettes” that had “teemed with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent. ”

His successor, John Adams, enjoyed a short press honeymoon, presumably from some editors relieved Alexander Hamilton hadn’t been anointed instead. Abigail Adams insisted her husband was more mortified by their tolerance than by their previous “impudent abuse.” Soon enough, a diplomatic crisis with France inspired an opposition paper to condemn Adams as “a man divested of his reason.” The honeymoon over, Adams signed and enforced a sedition law making it a federal crime for newspapers to ridicule the President.

Not surprisingly, after Jefferson defeated Adams, the veteran press manipulator, now president, suddenly recoiled at “the malignant & long-continued efforts which the federalists exerted in their newspapers.” Long an instigator, Jefferson now claimed to be a victim. To defend himself, he sponsored a pro-Jefferson newspaper and gave it exclusive access to official news along with government printing contracts to sustain it financially. But a spurned journalist broke the story of his longtime sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings – a sure way to bring a honeymoon crashing to an end.

President Thomas Jefferson and his predecessor, Federalist President John Adams

Abraham Lincoln enjoyed no press honeymoon at all. Long subject to condemnation and ridicule by Democratic newspapers, he failed to win their praise even when he summoned the “better angels of our nature” at his first inaugural – a line that Joe Biden quoted at his. To the New York Herald, Lincoln’s speech “would have caused a Washington to mourn, and would have inspired a Jefferson, Madison, or Jackson with contempt.” Revenge came swiftly. Within four months, the Lincoln administration began shutting down anti-war, anti-Republican Northern newspapers and arresting their editors.

Half a century later, on vacation shortly before his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson threatened to punch a photographer for taking an unladylike picture of his daughter riding a bicycle. Although he went on to stage the first formal White House press conferences, Wilson’s icy manner had already turned off most journalists.” A pleasant time was not had by all,” said one reporter. As editor William Allen White once sneered, Wilson “believed in the white-light of publicity chiefly for the other fellow.”

By contrast, Franklin D. Roosevelt jovially hosted the first of his nearly 1,000 press conferences in office just days after his swearing-in and dazzled White House correspondents. “The reporters saw him and were conquered,” admitted one UPI reporter. [156] Sympathetic photographers conspired to snap no pictures of Roosevelt in his wheelchair.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated in front of a number of television and radio station microphones, circa 1940s.

This time it was the president who terminated the romance. Within two years, FDR expressed his “lack of confidence in the press,” citing reporters’ growing “tendency” to “color news stories” to please their anti-New Deal publishers. The press in turn began to find Roosevelt’s manner “irritating.” But in FDR’s case, ease of access and charm guaranteed that the honeymoon at least lasted longer than expected – a lesson that future leaders often ignored.

John F. Kennedy counted many friends among the press corps, but his own press honeymoon ended within three months after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. After initially demanding that the press withhold stories about the build-up for the landing, JFK excoriated journalists afterward for not warning publicly against it. “Maybe if you had printed more about the operation,” the president snapped at a New York Times editor, “you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” Columnist James Reston coined a new phrase to describe Kennedy’s revisionism: “False News.”

Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson initially surmised the White House press hated him simply for taking Kennedy’s place. NBC anchorman Chet Huntley agreed, saying the “intellectuals…were so enamored of John Kennedy that they couldn’t get over” the ascent of the rough and profane Johnson. LBJ himself described his inability to impress the elite more colorfully: “How come if I say it, it comes out ‘Horse Shit,’ and when they say it, it comes out ‘Chanel Number Five?’” To his detriment, Johnson also proved too ardent in his desire for press approval. From the start, he staged constant press conferences, large and small, formal and informal, wasting an “extraordinary amount of time” on public relations, said columnist Stewart Alsop – without ever winning the journalists over.

At least Johnson came to the White House believing he could woo the press corps. Richard Nixon was certain that journalists would treat him unfairly. His administration quickly dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew on a speaking tour to vilify the media, and Nixon began assembling an enemies list peppered with the names of reporters and newspapers.

Gerald Ford’s press honeymoon lasted only days. When he pardoned Nixon, his own press secretary not only refused to defend the decision but quit his job. Jimmy Carter groused that the “national news media have absolutely…zero interest in any issues unless it’s a matter of making a mistake.” His press secretary Jody Powell contended that Carter not only enjoyed no press honeymoon, “Jimmy didn’t even have a one-night stand.”

Bill Clinton insisted he “never really had a ‘honeymoon’ in the press,” either, and veteran UPI correspondent Helen Thomas agreed that “the usual honeymoon … never materialized” for him. Clinton later told me he blamed the press corps’ immediate obsession with such overhyped would-be scandals as Whitewater and Travelgate.

President Bill Clinton

Thomas faulted the White House. Soon after Clinton’s inauguration, the administration sealed off the passageway that had long led from the ground-floor press room to the press secretary’s office. “I’ve been here since Kennedy,” Thomas groused to communications director George Stephanopoulos, “and those steps have never been blocked to us.” Locked doors tend to stunt a romance. Clinton later admitted to me that the decision had been an unforced error.

Barack Obama’s grace period, on the other hand, began earlier and lasted longer than most. During the 2008 campaign, one media observer reported that “Obama was the object of near veneration, possessed of a persona and a campaign that were irresistibly compelling to all but his rivals in the right-wing press.” As author Michael Eric Dyson suggested, the “fractured media landscape” left Obama no choice but “forging workable rather than wide consensus” through targeted press outreach.