tv A Conversation on Presidents the Press CSPAN August 29, 2018 7:09pm-7:50pm EDT
us dealt with shellshocked. -- with shellshocked. leadership in turbulent times. and with his book, grant. and fox news host with his book andrew jackson and the miracle of new orleans, the battle that shaped america's destiny. watch the 18th annual library of congress national book festival live on c-span to-- c- span 2 on saturday. historian john meacham sat
down with judy woodruff to talk about the relationship between press and presidents. it looks at how it has changed in the impact of the relationship. this is about 40 minutes. >> the second portion of presidents and the press presentation, we are really delighted to have had the previous panel which was terrific. we want to thank them very much for their years of experience and expertise and we are also so proud and privileged that we are able to have judy woodruff and jon meacham for the second part of the discussion and a critical element of the relationship that the country has had with the press and the president. i will turn it over to judy tran through-- judy woodruff and jon meacham .
>> i have been sitting there taking notes and listening and learning a lot from the conversation. full disclosure, i am sitting here with an amazing historian but i am the true antique in the room. i've covered seven presidents going back to jimmy carter. hearing some of these stories was just terrific. i have the great good fortune to have this conversation with one of america's extraordinary historians and someone who has written about a number of american presidents over the span of our extraordinary history. thomas jefferson, andrew jackson, franklin roosevelt and his relationship with winston churchill and more recently george hw bush. you've written about the
presidents of that period as well. >> it's like being called the best restaurant or not. you want to win but it's not that hard.>> the last panel-- you are going to do this the whole time. >> i love those guys. >> the last panel did a wonderful job touching on the history but i want to look at the history of the relationship between the presidents and the press and what this country was founded on. talk about the first amendment and what the founding fathers had in mind. >> they were not thinking about the new york times. the press
in england and the united states was that this was partisan. it was as if every party had its own cable network not unlike the internet in many ways. there were lots of attacks that would be picked up and republished around the country. let's not let the narcissism of the president blind us to the fact that we have been here before. part of the way that we came out of it and that became the oxygen as opposed to the stifling force was that there were so many. i think that we lament that we had a common culture and common understanding around about 1965. with all respect all of the big
reporters and the common culture gave us vietnam. they gave us a cause to write a book about how everyone got it so wrong. i would urge a sense of proportion and perspective. everyone gets up every day whether you are the president or citizen and tries to get it right. sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. the great grandson of our beloved prime minister. only half of you should be here since you are only half american but anyway, step outside the door. we will build a wall for you. anita just got nervous.
i don't remember what i was saying. we get everything wrong until we get it right. you can count on us to do the right thing after we've exhausted every other possibility. i think of three geological eras. there's the founding era where everyone was partisan. >> is that with the founding fathers-->> it's what they knew. they did not have a vision of the news hour. a publication or a broadsheet saying these are the facts that you have to know to become an informed citizen, this is not part of their reality. >> the first amendment anyway had a sense that it was important to have free press. that was part of how they envision the system. >> freedom of expression and speech were also motifs.
he did say i would rather live in a world with newspapers and no government than government and no newspapers. what he was saying was that he wanted to live in a rachal's culture-- a ruckus culture where we have ideas and voices that would come to the right decision. >> that was before he was president. >> president kennedy canceled and i know that we are all supposed to think that the presidents love the press and they tend to do so, before and after. mcbride is here was senior president bush's close personal aide. in george h to be bush's diary which is tape-recorded, it's like listening to dana carvey. [ laughter ] dana once said
that the key to doing george hw bush was mr. rogers trying to be john wayne. when i was listening to the diary, he would be bellyaching about the press in very specific terms like judy woodruff did this. pam donaldson did this. i begin to worry that as president the man who won the cold war had simply watched television all day. when i realized that part of what happened was that he had everything in his briefcase, he had the white house news summary and the tape recorder. he would be on marine one or air force one and pull everything out and start looking at this end be reading a transcript of everyone who had been attacking him all the
time. he would react to it that way. how many of you love being criticized? maybe you are better than im and to me that is the importance of the work that you do. you humanize people who are at risk of becoming monumental. the greeks were right. you all are custodians of the means by which we can access a usable past. >> picking up on that, there was one vision early on, but i want to talk to you about some of the people that you spend time studying. andrew jackson. where did his idea of how to relate to the press come from? he ended up inviting reporters
to what? to be advisors? >> his basic idea came from the nra. wait, that's actually good. [ laughter ] he did whatever he president wants to do. he did not like the democratic paper that was at work when he came to washington so he founded a new one. the washington globe was his newspaper. imagine if every president could start their own-we may be getting there. he was ahead of his time. people would bring him editorials, he would edit them, and it was how he communicated with the country. as one of the great architects of democratic popular 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 is no mistake that our greatest presidents and most effective presidents have been those who understood, sometimes intuitively, the means of communication. jackson and lincoln understood the importance of the printed word. jackson understood images. his got him ralph role. a painter lived in the white house and he painted it like the photo office. then president. roosevelt, winston churchill, president. kennedy, president reagan understood television, and the
incumbent fully understands both the vernacular of reality tv and social media. we know that the presidency has not changed the incumbent. what we don't know is whether the incumbent has changed the presidency. one thing that he has changed is, it is hard for me to imagine not having an authentic and ongoing social media communication with the country. >> you think that's permanent? >> yes i do. twitter, the whole thing. >> going forward, if you look at something that comes out from a candidate or incumbent and it looks as though it went through four layers of people, i think that will have an effect. we are all the media now. >> if you are thinking, i was trying to focus on the past but
let's bring it up to now. are you saying that in order to be successful in electoral politics you have to be able to master whatever the current means of communication is? it is stating the obvious but staying on top of whatever it is whether it is combination public speaking or having great relationships with newspapers and mastering whatever the social media is? >> stating the obvious is how i make my living so i am all for it. i don't see how that part goes back. remember your colleague, 1984 about the cbs evening news and a particularly long report about the 84 campaign and how ronald reagan was the master of
style but not substance. they showed a five or six minute report and rolled it on and showed these pictures of president. reagan in front of flags and everything you can think of. the track on it was how empty this was. empty calories, saccharides, not with the country wanted. and the phone rang at 6:42 saying thank you so much. leslie is expecting one of the calls we heard about saying why didn't you watch the piece? >> i watched it. no one listened to what you said, you just give me six minutes. history tells us that leadership in a popular government
requires people who can speak in a popular vernacular. people may not appreciate it with harry truman building the order with george hw bush being the last person who governed with a sense of consensus. there are any number of examples where history has become corrected to the impressions of the president. without an ability to speak through and above the press, no president can be successful. >> in connection with that, what about relationship with supporters? in the last panel we-- they were talking about sometimes it's too cozy and maybe step over the line. most of the time what we focus on is the adversarial relationship of what presidents are always or almost always
perceiving us hostile treatment that they are getting. >> there are wonderful examples on both sides. the bottom line who i think history tells us is that everybody is human and we get this right sometimes and wrong other times. franklin roosevelt was the founder of the modern west conference and daily briefing. they could not quote him directly. he was the most highly paid that round in american history. the clips are almost impenetrable because they are trying to quote the president without quoting the president. the fascinating thing was that fdr had a marvelous relationship with working reporters because they were working-class guys. it was like the front page. the
publisher-- the publishers hated him because they were the guys with money. reporters were benefiting from it so there was-- fdr understood it and understood the power of imagery. he liked watching newsreels of himself. orson welles came to see. he understood this in a way -- it was why he was elected four times. >> i hear you talking about this and i am reflect on what you said how in the country started for decades the press was all about opinions. it was
a driving force of the media. then we went through this period of trying to be fair and active. that was the time that i came into the press and it was what i was told. . you are supposed to gather the facts and report them. if we are going back to what we were for the longest time in the early part of our history, what is the right relationship? >> the old way which is now the new way, you have an opinion driven and partisan driven. that is the end of the 20th century for a couple of reasons. the progressive era, the rise of the idea that date of-- data could drive decisions was infecting journalism.
when the new york times was bought, there were something like 47 daily newspapers. he took the position of we shall do this without fear or favor because that was the only open marketing place. if you were a pro-life muslim you have your own newspaper in manhattan so he needed to-- he needed to have something to say and then the titanic went down. he understood big stories and always wanted a newsroom that could cover a story of that scope. in 1921 radio comes along and television in the late 40s. there is something called the fairness doctrine and we owned the public airway. the idea was that you could not express an opinion unless you gave equal time to both sides.
most decided to stay out of the business altogether and president reagan repealed that in the 80s. rush limbaugh goes national in 1988. by 1992 he was so important that his support helps bring george w. bush down in the new hampshire primaries. cnn was founded in 80 but it began its move. you had this period where more or less, and that's the media world in which most of us grew up. we are accustomed to the idea of walter cronkite and the new york times. >> we are hanging onto the idea that that is what the american way of journalism is. >> it wasn't all that great. he
had to manipulate that system. mccarthy would call a press conference at 11:30 in the morning because he knew the papers closed at noon and he would say i'm speaking to a communist in des moines and the afternoon papers would flash. senator. seeks red in des moines. he'd wait until the 11:30 p.m. and say he is eluding me but i am redoubling my efforts. headlines across the country, senator. redoubled efforts. he wrote that to power and television helped undo it because when people could watch him, they did not want to that. he rose because of intense coverage and he fell because of intense coverage. that is the mysterious cycle. if anything-- if there would be
more voices, and the cacophony there is a kind of chorus. >> i'm asking you to look back through presidents over time to find examples that support or don't support the idea that we need a free and fair press in this country. today there is a sense that the press that succeeds, not all of it, but driven by an agenda. it has enormous-- and enormous and in louisiana stick loyal following especially on the right but to some degree on the left. >> how many viewers do you have? >> 2 million. >> that's about where the big
opinions are. a little bit more. you have the news hour is one of the great models and one of the great islands of sanity in a storm of insanity. >> the credit goes to the founders. >> they are like the guys in philadelphia with wigs. tell them i said that. larry is not going to like that. [ laughter ] west virginia. that is the exception that proves the rule. the importance of the free press is not really a dispute. what we are facing is,
interestingly it's not an president. we barely begun when we had someone screaming fake news and that was john adams. the braintree people are probably upset about the act was about closing down presses that they believed were-- to the country in the opinion of the federal government. there is a tradition of people wanting to suppress. from 1918 to 1920, 400 publications were closed down because they disagreed with his views on the war. within the last hundred years,
400 newspapers were closed down. mitchell palmer makes jeff sessions looks like-- launched a raid based on the espionage act of 1917. within the last 100 years we had the power of the federal government, suppressing and curbing american dissent in the press and public arena. this is a difficult moment but as part of a tradition of reaction that requires, if i may, people who believe old america-- who believe that america for all of its faults, is right. having this capacity 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. >> he would-- only jon meacham would know the name of the postmaster general . >> i'm very big on jeopardy if you need me. >> one of the many reasons i was delighted to have a chance to talk to you is because at this moment we are all looking back in history looking for ways to not only put what is going on today in context but to see if there are ways that what is happening today with this president and the press, and what has happened with recent presidents, does have historical precedents. to figure out what is the strain in american life and the
values that are brought to where we are today, and it will carry us through it? >> it's hope versus fear and my argument is that the country does have a soul. i don't like it when people say the party with which i disagree has captured the soul of the country. that's not right. if we are being honest about our history, we have to realize that we are capable of great good and great evil often in the same afternoon. every generation is defined by the struggle between light and dark and that battle of, it is still a country that for all of our problems-- one is our immigration issue. the issue is that people want to come here. that's pretty good. we want to preserve that. but a country founded on the
most important sentence arguably ever written in the english language, that we are all created equal and endowed by their creator with certain and it-- inalienable rights, i'm always careful when i say something because the story about the school board candidate against teaching spanish, some said if english was good enough for our lord jesus christ it's good enough for texas. [ laughter ] i'm from tennessee so i would say that a lot. i said that to george w. bush and he said that's really funny, as whole. -- that's really funny, i'm really big in hospices if you need me. you should see him jump out of the cake. we do this together.
we are founded on the premise that we are all created equal and the man who wrote that was a slaveholder. it took us 90 years to adjudicate that. in my native region without the last half-century we lived under legalized apartheid. women have not yet voted for 100 years. 2020 will be the centennial. 50 years ago afferent-- african- americans could not vote in my native region. three years ago gay americans couldn't marry. three years ago. people are saying the issue is moving fast. i've never heard a single gay person that the story of their human rights is moving too fast. it's always a boring heterosexual pundit who says that. the journey is one that is difficult but has taken place. winston churchill once said-- i think 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 another. you have to have a free press, free opinions, but people who give us facts. facts are stubborn things, as items said. -- as adams said. you have to have citizens willing to create that part of the conversation where all too often you know as well as i do it's not better. politicians are mirrors of who we are as opposed to molders. if we want this city to change, we have to change. >> are citizens engaged now? the polls show a big chunk of the american public today does not trust the press and thinks
the press makes it up. >> i think we are ahead of that. >> we may not be. >> dick cheney is winning now. okay now we are in trouble. >> congresses words, i think people also-- 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 other people don't because my mississippi in-laws sure believe what is on fox particularly when they attack me. they love that. and, they don't believe what's on other networks. to them, the press, which is it?
can i ask you a question? you covered governor. carter right ? >> the relationship between the carter white house and the washington press corps, there was a lot of class issues and resentment issues there. do you think comparing the late 70s to now, a 40 year cycle, where we better governed in 1978 than in 2018? >> i don't know if i'm equipped to answer that question but i will say that the carter team who came to washington felt they had won this election against the overwhelming opposition of the democratic party hierarchy and were determined to come to washington and do it their way.
at the end of the campaign they felt that the party was against them, washington was against them, the establishment, and the new york times and washington post and establishment press was against them. so, they spent the first couple of years trying to do it their way, not bringing in people to washington and you know the story. they eventually did but by then it was late and impressions had set in. but are we governed better? can you say that about any time in our history? are our presidents in touch with the american people? that comes back, i think, to your point that the presidents who do the best and were 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 of a job is that as he wanted to. he would not have one but i think as he became president it was tougher. we can debate all day and night about what donald trump said during the campaign and whether what he is saying as president fulfills that or doesn't. there's a lot more to the story than that.>> i keep thinking that the presidents that we remember fondly and the ones that tend to drip off of the tongue in a popular way are the ones who would reach beyond the base that elected them. let's just do the 20th century. you have fdr who leaves on the 30s and 40s.
somehow we know that we are going to d-day and everything worked great. as churchill wrote, the representative between the bill- - bolshevism and nordic self- assertion, churchill would have known the postmaster general's name as well. what did he do? he understood how to ration this stuff. he wrote a letter of fdr being in-- we have a vision of fdr being in everyone's living room, he actually wrote saying there's something in the human psychology that resists hearing the highest note played in the scale repetitively.
he wanted to ration himself. he only wanted to go on the radio when he really had something to say. 1940, 1941 when he explained the different theaters of the war, remember the white house asked everyone to get a map and rand mcnally ran out of maps? immense popular leadership. president. truman and lyndon johnson are examples of people who surprised us because they did things that run-- that one would not have expected. they become these remarkable advocates for civil rights and living up to the promise of the decorate-- the declaration. pointing forward as opposed to pointing at each other, i think
the presidents that stand largest in memory are the ones who actually challenged the assumptions of the people who already support them. >> that was going to be my last question. what, as we look ahead, what kind of person is it who-- no president i can think of and maybe you disagree, ever has left the presidency thinking he was treated fairly by the press. democrat and republican, it doesn't matter what party they were. for all of the criticisms, no president feels he was treated fairly. what is that mysterious quality , out in the open quality that a person needs to have to be able to tell his or her story to people? >> it requires a certain level
of equanimity. it is vanishingly rare in any human being and equally so with politicians but look at affection and respect, every encounter to some extent as a transaction-- is a transaction of the fundamental personal economy of wanting to impress-- impress you enough and make you love that person enough that you will entrust them with your vote. the idea that you would have this bank of critics who are trying to complicate and stop that, and tortured this metaphor in this economic or virtual transaction, i think, is inherently frustrating. the one person i can think of
lot was president reagan. part of the reason is that he could outsource that to mrs. reagan. >> she didn't think he did. >> i will tell one less story. i was at a funeral the other day reminded of this because they were reading the sermon. president. reagan's great praise is that we are a shining city on the hill. the city upon the hill and your life shall not be hit. 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. i swear to god. i never met president. reagan but i did get to know mrs. reagan a little bit. she would eat a third of a cobb salad at lunch. you felt huge next to her. it was always terrible because she would gossip-- she would always do more gossip than i did. for me it was i don't know man. -- i don't know miss. yes it's terrible.>> i just noted that president. reagan had such an effect on our language and sense of national identity, people think that jesus said shining on the hill. she looked up at me and said, well that's the kind of thing ronnie would do, isn't it?