tv A Conversation on Presidents the Press CSPAN August 29, 2018 2:51pm-3:33pm EDT
>> some people think of this as abandoned but it is still a popular site. they believe their ancestors is still here. this is still an important site for many people in the southwest. >> watch c-span cities tour of flagstaff, arizona. historian john me chum sat down and looks at how the u.s. has changed and the impact of the relationship has had throughout american history. this is about 40 minutes.
all right. the second portion of our presidents and the press presentation. the previous panel was terrific. we're so proud and privileged we're able to have judy and jon to join us today for the second part of the discussion of a critical element in the relationship that the country has with the press and with the president. i turn it over to judy woodruff and jon mechum. thank you. >> what great panel that was. i've been sitting here taking notes and listening and learning a lot from the conversation.
full disclosure. i'm sitting here with an amazing historian. but i'm the true antique in the room. i've covered seven presidents going back to jimmy carter. so hearing some of these stories was just terrific, john. >> that's great. >> i have the great good fortune to have this conversation with one of america's extraordinary presidential -- america's historian and someone who has written about a number of presidents over the span of our extraordinary history, thomas jefferson, andrew jackson, frank roosevelt and his relationship with winston churchill and then most recently george h.w. bush. you also wrote about the civil war. so you've written about the presidents of that period too. >> i must say being called a historian, is like being called
the best restaurant in a hospital. you want to win, but it's not that hard. thank you. >> so the last panel -- you're going to do that. >> that's all right. that was for the benjamin harris home people. love those guys. >> the last panel did a wonderful job touching on the history but i want to touch on the history of this country and the relationship between the presidents and the press, and what this country was founded on. what the press was supposed to mean. talk for a little bit about the first amendment, what the founding fathers had in mind when they envisioned the role of the press. >> they weren't thinking about the "new york times" or the news hour. the press in the late 18th century in england and the united states was disputatious, was partisan, it was as if every
party had its own cable network. not unlike the internet in many ways. there were lots of unsigned squibbs, attacks that would be picked up and republished around the country. so i would -- let's not let the narcissism of the present blind us to the fact that we have been here before. and part of the way we came out of it, part of the way the press actually became part of the oxygen of the republic as opposed to to a stifling force is there were so many voices. i think we'll lament now we had a common culture, a common understanding. in some sort of mythic era around about 1965 with all respect to people at work then, the beat reporters, the common culture gave us vietnam, right? it gave us cause to have to write a book about how everybody got it so wrong. so i would urge a sense of
proportion and perspective about this. everybody gets up every day, whether you're the president or a citizen or a member of the media and tries to get it right. and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. and we hope, with winston church hill -- is duncan here? the great grandson of the beloved prime minister -- only half of you should be here since you're only half american. step outside the door. we're going to build a wall for you. anita just got nervous. i don't remember what i was saying. sure. we get everything wrong until we get it right, basically. you can count on us to do the
right thing after we've exhausted every other possibility. and i think that's true. basically i think of the press in sort of three geological eras, there's the founding era where everybody was partisan. >> is that what the founding fathers -- >> it's what they knew. they didn't have a vision of the news hour as we're going to have a publication or a broad sheet that's going to say these are the facts you have to know to become an informed citizen. that wasn't part of their reality. >> but they did have a sense, because they put it in first amendment anyway. they did have a sense that it was important to have a free press. that was part of -- >> totally. >> -- how they envisioned this system. >> to them the press and freedom of expression, speech, were all of a peace. and jefferson did say i'd rather live in a world with newspaper and no government than government and no newspapers. what he was saying was he wanted to live in a raucous culture
where we had a clammer of ideas and voices that would ultimately come to the right decision. >> but that was before he was president, right? and then after he was -- >> oh, yeah. president kennedy cancelled the herald tribune subscription. we know the presidents are supposed to love the press, they do it before and after. tim mcbride was here and he was president senior bush's close personal aide. in george h.w. bush's diary, it's a tape recorded diary like listening to dana carvey. dana once said the key to doing george h.w. bush's voice was mr. rogers trying to be john wayne.
but when i was listening to the diary, he would be belly aching about the press in very specific terms. like, marine dowd did this, judy woodruff did that, sam donaldson did this. i was beginning to worry as president, the man who won the cold war had watched tv all day. what i realized, somewhat in consultation with tim, part of what happened is he had everything in his briefcase. so he had the white house news sum entry the tape recorder. so he would be on marine one or air force one and pull everything out and start looking at this and be reading this great transcript of everyone who'd been attacking him all the time. so he would just react to it that way. that's the reality. how many of you all love being criticized? maybe you're better than i am, but, you know, it's just -- and
that -- to me that's the importance of the work you all do. it's that you all humanize people who are at risk of becoming monumental and therefore less accessible and character's destiny. the greeks were right. you all are custodians of the means by which we can access a usable past. >> and -- and picking up on that, jon, there was one vision of this early on, thomas jefferson's perceptions, but i want to ask you about some of the people you've spent time studying. andrew jackson, where did his idea of how to relate to the
press come from? because he ended up inviting reporters to what? to be advisers? >> his basic idea of how to deal with the press came from the nra -- oh, wait, that's actually good. so, you know, he did what every president wants to do. he did not like the democratic paper that was in -- at work when he came to washington in 1829. so he founded a new one. "the washington globe" was his newspaper. imagine if ever president can start their own thing -- we may be getting there. jackson was ahead of his time. people would bring him editorials, he would edit them. it was how he communicated with the country. it's beyond our can now but as one of the great architects of democrat culture, that understanding that you had to be in more or less constant communication with a democratic populace foreshadowed the modern world. i think he would have used twitter. you use the means of your day.
and it's no mistake that our greatest presidents, our most effective presidents, have been those who understood, sometimes intuitively, the means of communication. so jackson and lincoln understand the importance of words. jackson kept a painter, a guy named ralph earl, a painter lived in the white house to keep painting him. it was like the photo office. then president roosevelt, winston churchill, president reagan. and the incumbent understands the vernacular of reality tv and social media. we know that the presidency has not changed the incumbent, right? we don't know whether the incumbent has changed the
presidency. i think one thing he has changed is it's hard for me to imagine a successor not having an authentic ongoing social media communication with the country. >> you think that's permanent? >> i do. >> twitter, the whole thing. >> i think that if you start -- if you look at -- i think going forward, if you look at something that comes out from a candidate or an incumbent and it looks as though it went through four layers of people, i think that's going to have an affect. i could be wrong, but we are all the media now. >> so if you're thinking -- i don't want to get -- i was trying to focus on the past but let's bring it -- >> sorry. >> let's bring it up to now. are you saying jon meacham, that
in order to be successful in electoral politics in this country, you've got to be able to master whatever the current means of communication is? in a way it's stating the obvious, but it's staying on top of whatever it is. whether it's combination of public speaking and having great relationships with the newspapers and now mastering whatever the social media is? >> absolutely. i'd be stating the obvious is how i make my living. i'm all for it. i don't see -- i don't see how it -- i don't see how that part goes back, right. and remember the story your colleague leslie stall, 1984, do you remember the story about cbs evening news did a particularly long report about the '84 campaign and how ronald reagan was the master of style but not substance. and they showed, it was a five or six minute report, which in those days was the ice age. and rolled it on, showed all these pictures of president
reagan in front of flags and with children and everything you can think of, and all of leslie's track on it was how empty this was. these were empty calories, this was not what the country wanted. and the phone rang at 6:42. and it was mike diever, and he said thank you so much. leslie had been expecting one of those calls we just heard about. she said didn't you watch the piece? he said, yeah, i watched it. no one listens to what you said. you gave me six minutes of an ad. i think the history tells us that leadership in a popular government requires people who can speak in a popular vernacular. that the people of a given era may not appreciate it, with harry truman building the post war order, george h.w. bush
being the last person who governored with a sense of consensus. there are any number of examples where history has become a kind of corrective to the impressions of the president. but without an ability to speak both through and above the press, no president can be successful. >> what about -- in connection with that, what about relationships with reporters? in the last panel they were talking about sometimes it got too cozy, it was -- it maybe stepped over the line. much of the time what we focus on is the adversarial relationship, what presidents always -- or almost always perceive as this hostile treatment that they're getting while they're in office. >> you know, there's -- wonderful examples on both sides. i think that the bottom line on
this i think history tells us is that everybody is human and that we get this right sometimes and wrong other times. franklin roosevelt basically he was the founder of the modern press conference, the daily briefing. but they couldn't quote him directly. he was the most highly paid background briefer in history. if you read the "new york times" clips, they're almost impenetrable because they're trying to quote the president without quoting the president. the fascinating thing about that was fdr had this marvelous relationship with the working reporters because they were working class guys then. there were a few arthur crock, some people were but it was like the front page, the play. the publishers hated roosevelt because they were the guys with money, they were paying the taxes that fdr was imposing.
the reporters were benefitting from the taxes. so there was this inherent tension. and fdr understood it, he loved it. and he understood the power of imagery. he was watching a newsreel of himself and said that was the garbo in me. orson wells came to see him once and he said, orson we're two of the best actors in america. he understood this. which is why he was elected four times. >> i hear you talking about this and i reflect on how when the country started, for decades, the press was all about opinion. the press was ginning up opinion, it was the driving force of the media, we didn't call it the media then. then we went through this period of where we tried to be fair, objective, that was --
>> and balanced. >> that was -- that was the time i came into the press -- >> yeah. >> -- and it was what i was told, nobody cared what you think. you're supposed to go out and gather the facts and report them. so we now -- if we're going back to, jon, what we were for the longest time in the early part of our history, you know, what's -- what's the right -- >> the implication? >> -- relationship? what does that mean? >> the old way, which is now the new way. you have -- as judy said, you have the opinion driven, partisan driven press. that begins to end in the 20th century, a couple reasons. one was progressive era, the rise of political science, the rise of the idea that data could drive decisions was infecting journalism to some extent. when adolph ox box the "new york times" in 1946, there was like 47 daily newspapers in new york. he took the position we should do this without fear or favor because that was the only open
marketing place. if you were a pro-life mug wamp you had your own newspaper in manhattan. he needed something to say. and then the titanic went down. and he said he understood big stories. he wanted a "newsroom" that could cover a story of than scope. so the times wins out. and then, of course, 1921 radio comes along, television in the late '40s. there's something called the fairness doctrine, which was not repealed until '86 or '87 i think because we all own the public airwaves. so the idea was you could not express an opinion unless you gave equal time to both sides. so most people stayed out of that altogether. as part of a move, president reagan repealed that in the
'80s. rush limbaugh goes national in 1988. by 1992 he's so important his support of pat buchanan helps bring george h.w. bush down in the primary. '96 you have fox, msnbc, cnn was founded in '80, of course. so you had this period where we did have, more or less with the kind of -- part of it also is that's the media world in which most of us grew up. we're accustomed to this idea of cronkite and the "new york times" and there was a conversation. >> we're clinging onto the idea that's what it should be. that's what the american way of journalism is. my question is, is it? >> no. it wasn't all that great. joe mccarthy knew how to manipulate that system. he would call a press conference for 11:00 in the morning because
he knew the papers closed at noon. he would say i'm seeking a communist in des moines. he would wait until 11:00 p.m., headlines across the country, redoubles effort. he rode that to power but television helped undo him. because when people could watch him, they didn't want that. he rose because of intense coverage and fell because of intense coverage. that's the mysterious cycle here. i think physical anything the world is going to get more atomized, we're going to get more voices and we have to hope there's a kind of chorus that
checks and balances each other. >> i think i'm looking -- i'm asking you to look back through presidents over time to find examples that support, or don't, the idea that we need a free, fair press in this country. because today there is a sense that the press that succeeds is the press -- not all of it, but a lot of it is press that's driven by an agenda. and it's got an enormous, enthusiastic fiercely loyal following. >> yep. >> especially on the right. but to a degree on the left as well certainly -- >> how many viewers do you have in an evening? >> 2 million, give or take. >> so that's more than -- that's about where the big prime time cable people are, the big
opinion, a little bit more. >> a little bit more. >> so you've got the news hour, which i think all of us believe -- i would say this behind judy's back, is one of the great models, one of the great islands of sanity in a storm of insanity. >> credit goes to robyn mcneil, the founders -- >> they're like the guys in philadelphia with the wigs. laher is not going to like that. he said what? west virginia. so that's the exception that proves the rule. i -- they wouldn't -- the importance of the free press isn't -- isn't really a dispute. what we're facing now is a -- and interestingly it's not unprecedented because we'd barely begun when we had someone screaming fake news, and that was john adams.
sorry the brain tree people are probably upset. but, 1798, the acs were about closing down presses that they believed were deleterious to the country in the opinion of the federal government. so there's -- there is a tradition of people wanting to suppress decent. in 19 -- from 1918 to 1920, the postmaster general closed down 400 publications in this country because they disagreed with president wilson's views on the war. so within the last 100 years, 400 newspapers were closed down. eugene debb went to jail. palmer, who makes jeff sessions looks like oliver wendle holmes, had raids.
so within the last 100 years we had the power of the federal government be martialed to curb decent in the press and the public arena. so this is a difficult moment, but it's party of a tradition of reaction that requires, if i may, people like you and me, people who believe that ultimately america, for all its faults, is right to understand that having this cacophony of voices is good. and to attack the institutions is, in fact, american in the sense of following our least good instincts, our worst instincts, instead of our best.
>> and only jon meacham would know the name of the postmaster general. >> henry burleson. i'm very big on dork jeopardy if you need me. >> so i think some of us -- i mean, the reason i -- one of theman reasons i was delighted to have a chance to talk to you this morning we're all at this moment i think looking back at history, looking for ways to put not only put what's going on today in context, but to understand it and to see if there are ways that what's happening today with this president and the press today -- what's happened with recent presidents, does have historical precedence. to figure out what is the strain in american life, what are the values in american life that
have brought us to where we are today and that will carry us through it? >> it's hope versus fear. and they are -- my argument about this is that the country does have a soul. soul in greek and hebrew is breath or life. i don't like it with people say the party with which i disagree has captured the soul of the country. that's not quite right. if we're being honest about our history we have to realize we're capable of great good and great evil often in the same afternoon. every generation is defined in the struggle between light and dark in that battle for our better angels. it's still a country for all of our problems, what is our immigration issue? our immigration issue is that people want to come here. that's pretty good. we want to preserve that. we want that to happen. but a country founded on the sentence -- the most sentence arguably ever written in the english language that we're all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain rights, i say the old story about the texas school board candidate who
was against teaching spanish and said if english was good enough for our lord jesus christ, it's good enough for texas. i'm from tennessee so i say that a lot about texas. if it weren't for us they'd be part of spain. i said that to george w. bush once, he said, ha ha, that's really funny asshole. i'm also big in hospices if you need me. we're founded on that premises and you should see david brooks jump out of a cake. we do this together sometimes. we're founded on a premises that we're all created equal and yet the man who wrote that was a slave holder and it took us 90 years to adjudicate that and in my native region in the last half century we've lived under legalized apartheid. women have not yet voted for 100
years in this country. 2020 will be the centennial. 50 years ago, african-americans couldn't vote in my native region. three years ago, gay americans couldn't marry. three years ago. people say the issue on gay rights is moving so fast. i've never heard a single gay person say it's moving too fast. never. so the journey is one that is difficult but has taken place, winston churchill once said the journey is toward the bright sun lit uplands. and i think that ultimately you have to have intellectually honest parties who are willing to call them as they see them as opposed to reflexively taking a position one way or the other. you have to have a free press,
free opinion, but also people who actually give us some facts. facts are stubborn things as adam said. you have to have engaged citizens who are willing to create that part of the democratic conversation, lower case d, where all too often, you know this as well as i do, if not better, politicians are mirrors of who we are as opposed to to molders. and so, if we want this city to change, we have to change. >> and are citizens engaged now? because the polls show a big chunk of the american public today doesn't trust the press. just thinks the press makes it up. >> yeah, it's -- i think we're ahead of dick cheney but that's
about it. the press, in the polls -- >> we may not be. >> dick is winning now? okay. now we're in trouble. no. yes, i mean, congress is worse -- so i -- i think people also have -- i distrust those polls a little bit because i don't know what "the press" means anymore. if i don't, i suspect a lot of people don't. because my mississippi in-laws sure believe what's on fox. particularly when they attack me, they love that. and they don't believe what's on other networks. so to them "the press" -- which is it? can i ask you a question, because you -- you started covering governor carter, right?
>> i did. >> so the relationship between the carter white house and the washington press corps was not smooth. there was a lot of class issues, right? there was a lot of resentment there? but do you think, comparing the late '70s to now, so a 40-year cycle -- biblical cycle in a way -- were we better governed in 1978 than 2018? >> i don't know if i'm equipped to answer that question. i will say that the carter team who came to washington felt that they had won this election against the overwhelming opposition of the democratic party hierarchy, and they were determined to come to washington and do it their way. they felt at the end of the campaign they felt the party was against them, that washington
was against them. the establishment. and that the highfalutin "new york times" and "the washington post" and the establishment was against them. so they spent the first couple years trying really hard to do it their way, not bringing in people in washington and then the story they eventually did, but by then it was late and impressions had set in and so forth. but are we governed better? i don't know. any time in history are we governed better? are the presidents in touch with the american people. that comes back, i think, to your point that the presidents who do the best, who are the most successful, are the ones who communicate what they
believe, what they want, what their hopes and aspirations are to the american people. i don't think jimmy carter did as good a job of that as he wanted to. he did during the campaign or he wouldn't have won but i think has he became president it was tougher. today we can debate all day and night what donald trump said during the campaign and whether what he's saying as president fulfills that or doesn't, and there's a lot more to the story than that. >> yeah, 'cause i keep thinking that the presidents we remember fondly, and the ones that tend to trip off the tongue in sort of a popular way, are the ones who reached beyond the base that elected them. right. so, let's just do the 20th century. so you have fdr, who leads very -- the '30s and '40s now, it seems like it's this world where we somehow or another go from soup lines to d.-day and everything worked out great. there was a fundamental question in the early 1930s that roosevelt represented the great hope between the bailful lights of soviets and the lights of nordic self-assertion. churchhill would have known the postmaster's name also.
what did he do? he understood how to ration himself. he wrote a letter in 1935, we have this vision right of fdr being in everyone's living room all the time. he didn't think he should be in the living room too much. he actually wrote saying, there's something in the human psychology that resists hearing the highest note played in the scale repetitively. and so, he wanted to ration himself. he only wanted to go on the
radio when he really had something to say. 1940, '41 when he wanted to explain the different theatres of the war, remember the white house asked everyone to get a map and rand mcnalley ran out of maps because he was going to talk through the theatres, immense achievement. president truman and president lyndon johnson are two examples, it seems to me, of people who surprised us because they did things that one would not have expected on the front end. senator from missouri, senator from texas become these remarkable advocates for civil rights and living up to the promise of the declaration. and they surprised us, and they led again kind of pointing forward as opposed to pointing at each other. and i think the presidents that stand largest in memory are those who actually challenge the assumptions of the people who
already support them. >> and that was going to be my last question is what, as we look ahead, what kind of person is it who -- no president i can think of, maybe you disagree, ever has left the presidency thinking he was treated fairly by the press, democrat, republican, it doesn't matter what party they were. so far all the criticism, no president feels he was treated fairly. so what is that thing, that mysterious quality or out in the open quality, that a person needs to have in order to be able to tell his or her story to the american people? >> well, it requires a certain level of eqinimity that's vanishingly rare in any human
being and particularly so with politicians. what's a politicians' unit of commerce? it's affection, respect, it's a vote. so every encounter, to some extent, is a transaction in that fundamental economy. personal economy of wanting to impress you enough and make you love that person enough that you're going to entrust them with your vote. so the idea that you would then have this bank of critics who are trying to complicate and stop that sale to torture this metaphor in this economic virtual transaction i think is -- is inherently frustrating. the one person i can think of who i know belly ached but not a lot would be president reagan. part of the reason is he could outsource it to mrs. reagan. that's a case of offshoring
working. can i tell one last story just really quick. i was at a funeral the other day and i was reminded of this. so we all know, right president reagan's great phrase is we are a -- >> shining city. >> shining city on a hill. okay. well, you know, that, we should be as a city on a hill and your light should not be hid. i've actually been in churches where ministers have said, as our lord said, we are a shining city on a hill. our lord didn't, president reagan did. and so -- swear to god. so i -- i never met president
reagan, it's one of my great regrets. i did get to know mrs. reagan a little bit. she's the only woman i know at lunch would eat a third of a cobb salad. you felt huge next to her. and i said -- it was always terrible because she knew more gossip about the obamas than i did. it was like, i don't know, ma'am, yes, it's terrible, whatever. so we're talking once and i said, you know, i just noticed president reagan coined -- has had such an affect on our language and our sense of national identity -- >> it's great note to end on. thank you jon meachum. you're watching our coverage of the white house historical
association summit about presidential historic sites across the country. historians tell how they choose which stories are told when they do biographies. we'll show you coverage of the second day of the the white house historical association of the site summit with panel discussion on presidents and the press. that's tonight at 8:00 eastern here on c-span3. american history tv weekdays continues until labor day. on thursday, we turn to our