Unmasking the Presidency
Gavin Aronsen | 2009 Sidey Essay Winner
Presidents have a tendency to be idolized for their perceived successes—Ronald Reagan for his role in felling Communism and realization of the GOP economic model—and demonized for their perceived failures—Carter for his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis and skyrocketing inflation rates—or simply forgotten in mediocrity. Before these impressions are etched in stone, their every move is followed with a hawk's eye, scoffed at in times of trouble and admired in times of triumph. But Time magazine reporter Hugh Sidey, rather than affixing simplifying labels to these leaders, analyzed their work in a socially principled way that humanized them in a manner accessible to the masses while avoiding trivializing the import of their office.
It was in the 1940s that magazine publisher Henry Luce sought out University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins to ask him if he would form a commission with the goal of identifying the democratic functions and responsibilities of the media. He did, and the commission concluded that journalists ought to present "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning" in an open public forum that provides "a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society" while sharpening the focus on the values that society should seek to achieve and how it should go about doing so. i
Sidey, who started writing on the American presidency during the era of Dwight Eisenhower and continued until his death in November 2005, forged a career path from Iowa to the nation's capital. ii In one telling example of his belief that the United States presidency is "the most sought after, analyzed and scrutinized" political position in the world, he wrote in a 1979 article about Jimmy Carter, "The U.S. is the only power in the free world that can orchestrate some events around the globe to bring pressure on the sore point." iii Indeed, whether through its superior military might or its economic stature, or even its democratic symbolism—as the beacon of light in a dark world, enshrined by Lady Liberty—the president has opportunities to influence the course of global affairs that few, if any, others have in such a profound way.
Gerald Ford, in a Washington Post article published shortly after Sidey's passing, wrote about the journalist, "I like reporters, even if I haven't always liked what some wrote about me. I figure that's a pretty minor price to pay for a free press in a free society." He continued, adding that "it is possible for a politician and a journalist to enjoy mutual respect, admiration and, yes, friendship, all the while understanding the necessarily adversarial relationship that often exists between those in power and those who report on their activities." iv
Certainly, it would seem Ford provided an accurate portrayal of his relationship with Sidey. In an article published in November 1976, Sidey commended the outgoing president for fostering "solidity, courage, common sense and honor" in post-Nixon America, but the praise came with its caveats. Ford's "stubbornness," the journalist wrote, "was part of his limited appeal, but . . . not a quality of inspiration." He compared the president to predecessors like Herbert Hoover, "not men of greatness, but men who did their best. In that," he allowed, "there is honor." v
Yet just as certainly as the accuracy of Ford's words, not all presidents have acknowledged the press with such geniality, nor with such apparent interest in the public good. Sidey did enjoy times of considerable access to the Nixon administration; for instance, he traveled with the president to China as part of a historic attempt at normalizing international relations in 1972. vi But in March 1974, Sidey commented on Nixon's isolation in light of the Watergate affair, and on "the synthetic image that he has created . . . in his larger battle for survival." vii In 2005, in reminiscence for Time, former correspondent Jay Branegan recalled that "Hugh was the one who kept pushing the story with the editors in New York, fighting for space, telling them that there was fire to go with the smoke." viii
In his article, Sidey touched on what continues to this day to be a central struggle between journalists and the government. "All Presidents put on special acts for their staffs and their visitors," he wrote. "And the aura of the office still subdues people, still reduces the critical faculties of those who come into the epicenter." ix Although Sidey was directing his critique more specifically toward Nixon administration insiders, his point is every bit as pertinent to the fourth estate.
Politico reporter Michael Calderone put the matter into rather blunt perspective. He noted the propensity of the press corps to write beat sweeteners—gushing puff about White House officials—in hopes of gaining greater access to the executive branch, particularly in the early months after a new administration's ascent to power. Calderone spoke to Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter, who told him, "It's emblematic of the way Washington journalism often works" because it "puts the ease of their working relationship ahead of the interests of the reader." x
This abdication of commitment to social responsibility as it was delineated in the Hutchins Commission report more than a half century ago no doubt contributed to the uncritical examination many news outlets gave of the rationale for the Iraq War during the second Bush administration. More recently, it has opened the floodgates to unyielding praise of the nation's first African American commander-in-chief and his subordinates, influencing the president's favorability ratings and granting him a window of opportunity to brush aside criticism of his handling of the global economic crisis that he otherwise might not have been so readily afforded. (Although in the latter case, this probably has as much to with what Sidey wrote in 1976, following the election of Carter, about a "country's soaring expectations," which the presidency "cannot possibly live up to," in anticipation of charting a fresh course in the world. xi )
U.S. presidents have the profound ability to impact all corners of the earth in dramatic fashion. The media, for its part, plays a pivotal role in disseminating knowledge of the actions of the executive branch to its citizens, whose opinions then influence to what extent and from what direction presidents are able to bring their agendas to fruition. This is not to suggest that journalists necessarily serve as willing mouthpieces of the federal government in some nefarious plot to manipulate the public, although some do. Nor is it to suggest that they seek simply to demonize the chief executive, although some do that as well. Regardless, to provide a true portrait of the modern presidency, journalists must delve beneath the superficiality of the chattering class to unmask the office's underlying complexities.
To better illustrate his contention that Bill Clinton was complicit in the nation's preoccupation with the president's scandalous personal life, Sidey drew a comparison to Lyndon B. Johnson in a 1994 article. "Presidential provocations are a constant of history," he wrote. "The presidential responses spell the difference between success and dismissal." xii Herein lies evidence of a press acting responsibly. Reporting on the grim realities of the Vietnam War, journalists influenced the public's sense of the effort's futility and human toll. Johnson, less than forthright in his reaction, effectively exhausted much of his foreign policy capital and intensified the public's desire to end the war.
Framing the pitfalls in the delicate give-and-take between journalists and presidents in the way Alter did—when the press "puts the ease of their working relationship ahead of the interests of the reader"—may be overgenerous in its presupposition that the reader's primary interest is content devoid of ulterior motives and obfuscating bias. The advent of the information age has proved to be an important counterbalance to an increasingly consolidated and homogenized media market that has stifled somewhat Hutchins's public forum, but it is also something that caters to people's short attention spans and lack of attention to detail. Not only is it easier now to access the news, but it is also no chore to unearth myriad content which serves to buttress preexistent belief systems in much the same way as does the demagoguery of talk radio.
In its remembrance piece, Time fondly recalled that "Sidey never became a prisoner of the Beltway. He'd often go home to Iowa to listen and learn what Americans were thinking." Dan Goodgame, Time's Washington bureau chief from 1993 to 1997, added, "On campaign trips, he moved easily from the candidate's cabin to the fringes of the crowds, gaining insights from people with the simplest of questions: what makes your neighbors happy right now? What concerns them?" xiii Because so much news, particularly that of the so-called new media, is merely a collection of what others have reported on, it makes an enormous difference when writers understand and communicate directly with their target audiences, in the process not only producing original content but creating an element of meaningful engagement for their readers.
Ford, in his article for The Post, summarized Sidey's adherence to this principle by writing, "Hugh put readers at the center of events. At the same time, he made it possible for millions who might never visit the White House to experience it, in good and not so good times, through a president's eyes and ears." xiv
One might wonder whether this high praise calls into question Sidey's commitment to fairness. He was, after all, close friends with Reagan and Bush the Elder. xv But everyone views life through his or her own subjective lens. Perhaps Sidey's friendships were part of the give-and-take nature of his job; it is true he did write favorably about both Reagan and Bush. In so doing, however, he took care to avoid self-isolation. When he explained "Why the Criticisms Don't Stick" to Reagan in 1984, he placed his observations in the context of a fickle public and acknowledged that "Reagan has made many blunders," listing five of particular importance. xvi Ultimately, the journalist wrote the truth as he saw it through his eyes, mindful of accuracy and employing a level of scrutiny deserving of the office he came to know so well. Even in reporting on Bush's parachute jump in 1997, Sidey focused on the broader context of the psychological toll the death of two crewmen took on the president when his torpedo bomber was shot down during World War II. xvii
Concluded Ford in his eulogy, "Hugh not only explained Washington to the rest of America; by being the kind of person he was, no less than by setting the highest of journalistic standards, Hugh Sidey also embodied the best of America in Washington." xviii It is through this brand of journalism that the next generation of presidential reporters will play an important role in shaping the historical record. Furthermore, as it was with Sidey, it will be the means by which they will see their writings vindicated through the hand they played in providing their readers an accurate and insightful account of the figures behind the mask of the Oval Office.