Chernow opened with a yarn from George Washington’s first term, during which the founding father was relentlessly pounded by an opposition press, which even “charged that he’d been a secret British agent throughout the Revolutionary War.”
“Obviously, the British had gotten a very poor return on their investment,” he quipped.
At one point, a State Department official named Philip Freneau — who, under a pseudonym, was running a newspaper that repeatedly and mercilessly attacked Washington — printed a cartoon showing Washington being beheaded “a la Louis XVI,” Chernow said.
“But despite this extreme provocation, Washington always honored the First Amendment,” he said. Like every future president, Washington felt maligned and misunderstood by the press. But he never generalized that into a vendetta against the institution.”
Chernow then zipped through what he called “a museum of presidential decorum,” recounting other presidents’ relationships with the press.
“Our best presidents have handled the press with wit, grace, charm, candor and even humor,” he said.
Here are some highlights:
Teddy Roosevelt: The Bull Moose had a “natural affinity” for the press, Chernow said.
Roosevelt “devised a midday ritual called ‘the barber’s hour’ in which reporters would cluster around him as he was being shaved. The babbling president would spout a never-ending stream of opinion while his poor barber, bobbing and weaving with his razor, gamely tried to shave [him] without slitting the presidential throat.”
Calvin Coolidge: Coolidge started the first regularly scheduled news conferences, Chernow said.
“Reporters had to submit their questions in advance, and ‘Silent Cal’ sat stiffly behind his desk, working his way through a tiny stack of index cards.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR treated reporters “like grown-ups,” Chernow said. He got rid of written questions and held more than a thousand news conferences and 30 “fireside chats” in his 12 years as commander in chief.
“Even [first lady] Eleanor Roosevelt held her own news conferences, where she invited only female reporters,” Chernow said. “This proved a tremendous boon to women journalists across the country, because even the most hidebound publishers realized they were now forced to hire women journalists.”
John F. Kennedy: Chernow noted Kennedy’s charm and self-deprecating sense of humor. In January of 1961, Kennedy held the first televised news conference, and 60 million people tuned in, “a record only eclipsed by the 70 million who watched the Beatles debut on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ three years later in 1964.”
Ronald Reagan: Reagan had been scheduled to attend the 1981 White House correspondents’ dinner, Chernow said, but had to cancel after he was shot on March 28, 1981. So he called into the dinner instead, joking to the audience: “If I could give you just one little bit of advice, when someone tells you to get into a car quick, do it.”
“That was a touch of class that has been sorely missing in our political culture in recent years,” Chernow said. “It was a subtle reminder that, whether Republicans or Democrats, we are all bona fide members of Team USA and not members of enemy camps.”
From the audience, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the one of the myriad House committees investigating Trump, applauded.
It wasn’t all nostalgia and reminiscences, however. Chernow also recounted President Richard M. Nixon’s frosty relationship with the media. In 1971, Nixon followed his press secretary’s advice and attended the White House correspondents’ dinner, Chernow said.
“After his next press conference,” Chernow said, “Nixon grumbled privately, ‘The reporters were considerably more bad-mannered and vicious than usual. This bears out my theory that treating them with considerably more contempt is a more productive policy.’”
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