Maybe reporters were nicer back then than they are now. Maybe the president was mellower. But it’s hard to imagine a headline today like the one that ran in The Washington Post after the very first White House news conference in 1913: “Wilson, In Friendly Chat, Says He Likes Reporters.”
And they liked him too. The (unnamed) Post correspondents at that groundbreaking Q & A described Woodrow Wilson as “standing there, where he could take in all with a sweep of his kindly eyes and with a genial smile.”
On Tuesday, President Trump had a contentious exchange with reporters at Trump Tower, where they pressed him on the Charlottesville rally by white supremacists that turned violent Saturday. Trump repeatedly interrupted the reporter questioning him about the clashes between neo-Nazis and white nationalists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and hundreds of counterprotesters.
“Wait a minute, I’m not finished,” Trump told her. “I’m not finished, fake news.”
It took just over a century from cigars in the Oval to “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” but that path started on a March afternoon when, according to archived clips and memoirs, 100 journalists — all men, all newspaper writers — were welcomed in to “the president’s private office” and greeted the commander in chief. It was the beginning of a ritual that every president would continue, from those who delighted in jousting with the media to those who would condemn their souls to hell with a terse “No comment.”
Before Wilson, reporters were more focused on Congress than the White House, and presidents dealt with reporters on a more individual basis. Theodore Roosevelt would invite his favorites in to talk while he got his morning shave.
“He liked reporters,” said presidential communications scholar Martha Joynt Kumar. “He liked banter, and reporters are good at banter.”
Things got more crowded as the number of newspapers grew in the early 20th century and more of them sent correspondents to Washington. Roosevelt was the first president to set aside working space in the White House for their use. But it was Wilson, comfortable dealing with media packs from his time as governor of New Jersey, who first invited a gang of them in to pepper him with questions in what we would recognize as a version of the modern news conference, celluloid collars and all.
He was pushed to take them on by Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s personal secretary and confidant. Tumulty played what would be the chief of staff role today, and by organizing the first of 159 news conferences in Wilson’s two terms he became the first White House press secretary, the Sean Spicer-Anthony Scaramucci-Sarah Huckabee Sanders of the Jazz Age.
Wilson told the journalists that Tumulty could speak for him, especially as the president was learning his way around Washington.
“As a novice, I am devoting all my time trying to get onto my job, but I am sure you have found the door open to my dear friend Tumulty, who has told how they do things in Jersey,” Wilson said, according to The Post. “Nor does the Jersey way differ much from the national way, I take it.”
On that March day, just six weeks into his presidency, there was no leaping up to shout a question. The president shook each reporter’s hand as they entered and were introduced to Wilson by the superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery. The professorial Wilson stood and answered the questions he wanted and dismissed those he didn’t with a curt, “No, I think not.”
The reporters were delighted with the newfangled idea of getting a chance to interrogate the president on a regular basis. “The attitude of the White House toward the press has given general satisfaction to Washington newspaper correspondents,” The Post reported.
Wilson even apologized for his stiff style. He made it clear to the gathered that what he wanted from them was less reporting about what was happening in the capital and more about the mood and desires of the people out in the country. But the reporters, then as now, thought the obligation of the Washington press corps was to tell the people out in the country what the federal government was doing, and the good feelings of the first news conference didn’t last. Wilson suspended them briefly after some newspapers printed remarks he had considered off the record, and then reduced their number greatly during his second term and the demands of prosecuting World War I.
“Wilson ultimately decided that the sessions weren’t that useful,” Kumar said.
Tumulty remained an influential aide, even given credit by some historians for largely running the government after Wilson suffered a stroke. But the two became estranged in part because of Wilson’s displeasure after Tumulty wrote the era’s equivalent of a tell-all memoir: “Woodrow Wilson as I Knew Him.”
But the media model the two men instituted outlasted them. The reporters — and their readers — had gotten a taste for hearing directly from the president, and from that day on a direct channel to their elected leader was opened that no White House has been able to close.
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