The title of renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer’s new book is not The Presidents and the Press. There’s an antagonism in the title’s “vs” that has been reflected in reality since both the free press and the presidency were enshrined in the United States Constitution.
Partly this is understandable. At its best, the press is intended to represent the people’s interest, uncovering corruption and abuses that the general public should very much know about. At its worst, the presidency is an autocracy that very much likes to keep its own secrets —and deeply dislikes being challenged, much less investigated. Too often in the last 240 years, these two vital American institutions have brought out the worst in each other.
Americans in 2020 are getting a daily reminder of this fact, which demonstrates the prescience of Holzer’s book. Donald Trump’s frequent COVID-19 press events regularly degenerate into shouting matches between self-righteous reporters and a defensive, deceitful President —spectacles that every adult American ought to find embarrassing. In a series of deeply researched and wonderfully readable chapters, Holzer demonstrates that this is just an outrageous 21st-century version of a relationship that’s always been rocky.
Holzer doesn’t profile every single President; rather, he picks and chooses the most memorable and pertinent. There’s Washington and Jefferson and Jackson, but no Fillmore or Buchanan or Monroe. There’s both of the Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson, but no Taft or McKinley. All our modern Presidents receive ample treatment, although considering Ronald Reagan’s masterful manipulation of the press, it’s odd to find him merely sharing a chapter with George HW Bush. And Donald Trump, who’s been referring to the press as “the enemy of the American people” since before he was elected, naturally commands a chapter of his own.
Some of this will already be familiar to readers of Presidential histories; indeed, Holzer’s own book on President Lincoln and the press had a wide and well-deserved readership. All the familiar stories are here: Theodore Roosevelt regaling reporters for hours with his most incendiary opinions but declaring virtually all of it to be off the record (and creating a special “traitors club” for any writer who broke the pact); Franklin Roosevelt expecting a gentleman’s agreement that the press would omit descriptions or photos of his physical disability (and his Secret Service simply blockading anybody who tried to disobey); John F. Kennedy suavely handling press briefings, and so on. However, as Holzer points out, “The biggest impact Kennedy exerted on American television audiences came with his untimely murder.”
Some details may not be so familiar. Younger readers may not know, for instance, that President Carter often had a witheringly negative view of the press, which, Holzer points out, was quickly reciprocated. “Carter,” he writes, “whose failures came to outpace his triumphs, soon gave press critics ample fodder for filleting.” Likewise, readers will find it interesting to learn that part of FDR’s talent at handling the press might have come from his days working on the “Harvard Crimson.” The chapter on Richard Nixon, whose presidency was ended by the investigations of the free press, is particularly riveting reading. When Holzer quotes Ronald Reagan who hoped to be remembered as “the President who made Americans believe in themselves again,” he goes on to conclude: “his controversial policies notwithstanding, Reagan will likely go down in history for precisely that achievement.” (Readers can quietly add “$2.7 trillion Federal debt” on their own.)
Holzer handles his material with skill and intense readability, choosing quotes with exquisite precision and displaying everywhere the warm insight that made his earlier books so enjoyable. But his subject couldn’t be grimmer, as he acknowledges in his parting discussion of Donald Trump and the term “fake news,” which Trump has very, very often used to describe verifiable facts he simply doesn’t like. As the well-known saying goes, you may be entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Holzer is entirely right to be worried about the precedents being set.
And because they are precedents, we all should be worried, regardless of the results in November.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor.