Greatness from the Heartland of America  ›  Hugh Sidey (1927-2005)

We live in a time filled with skepticism and cynicism – about the motives of elected officials, about the integrity of corporate executives, about the behavioral lapses of celebrities. At the same time, there are those who lift our spirits and whose lives serve as a beacon of that which is good and inspiring.

Hugh Sidey was such a beacon. As his friends, associates, and admirers gathered in Washington to honor his memory, they reflected on the graciousness, the wit, the eloquence, and the insights that graced his nearly five decades in Washington.

During the forty eight years he spent chronicling ten presidents for Time magazine, Hugh Sidey earned the respect of all those whom he covered in the Oval Office. President Gerald R. Ford has disclosed that he had asked Hugh Sidey to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. President George H.W. Bush delivered a eulogy at Hugh Sidey's funeral. One leading Washington observer related to me that he thought it inconceivable that any future journalist would enjoy the access, the respect, or the closeness to the Presidents they covered as did Hugh Sidey.

To understand this remarkable man one needs to appreciate his origins. Born in Greenfield, Iowa, the son of a family of journalists who published the Adair County Free Press, Hugh Sidey came from America's heartland. Those who have lived on the graceful rolling terrain of the plains know of the stability it gives one's life and the firm foundation it helps to instill. By the time our family moved to Ames, Iowa, Hugh had completed his degree at Iowa State University and begun his career in journalism. After stints working on newspapers in Council Bluffs and Omaha, in 1955 he joined Life magazine in New York and two years later began covering the Eisenhower administration for Time magazine in Washington.

We became friends in the late 1960s when he accepted my invitation to deliver a series of addresses on the presidency at Brigham Young University. For an eager student who had only visited Washington, D.C. briefly, hearing his accounts of how presidents made decisions and shaped policies was fascinating. He offered encouragement suggesting that I visit him in Washington and consider opportunities for public service.

His roots go a long way to explaining his greatness. While driving across the country with our oldest son, we stopped in Greenfield, Iowa for a meal in a local diner. I inquired whether the residents knew Hugh Sidey. Their positive response was instructive: "Hugh may be living in Washington, but we see him often. He has never really left Greenfield. He still knows where he comes from."

Like Ronald Reagan, another Midwesterner who migrated to the coasts, Hugh Sidey knew who he was, and he developed a core of values that animated his life. Three of those characteristics are worth pondering.

The first was his inner compass of integrity. He never misled or dissembled. He did not compromise, misrepresent, or misuse the information he gleaned in his interviews and conversations. Public officials knew that he could be trusted; that he would report it straight; that accuracy was his touchstone. In an environment where shortcuts are commonplace, he knew the value of one's word and the treasure that is found in an honest life. Yet he was neither stiff nor sanctimonious. He recognized the need not to take oneself too seriously as reflected in his observation: "A sense of humor... is needed armor. Joy in one's heart and some laughter on one's lips is a sign that the person down deep has a pretty good grasp of life."

A second redeeming quality was the dignity and respect he accorded others. Hugh Sidey viewed the presidency as a job constantly full of challenge, and the men who occupied the Oval Office as full of ambition and confidence. In countless conversations over many decades, I never heard him disparage a fellow journalist or question the motives of those about whom he wrote so perceptively. He developed a reverence for the Presidency that permitted him to retain his respect for the institution and its capacity for good, even while covering the scandals and missteps that periodically punctuate our national life. He did not leap to quick conclusions. He acquired a maturity that enabled him to see daily events in the context of the broad sweep of history. The judgments that he reached were grounded in a fundamental respect for all parts of the Washington community. In the process, his perceptive insights endeared him to those whom he met, great and ordinary.

Finally, he was full of optimism and hope about America and our great experiment in democracy. As much as anyone else, he helped me to understand the role of the press, and the nature of the Presidents who occupied the Oval Office. He truly was an idealist without illusions. Through all his years of seeing the institutions of government at close hand, he retained his belief in the fundamental goodness of this land and its people. "When people travel here from across the country, they shed jealousies and politics and prejudices. The mighty climb down. The humble are elevated."

For more than a decade we served together as members of the Board of directors of the White House Historical Association. Last month we sat next to one another at a board luncheon meeting and exchanged anecdotes, impressions, and assessments. I will miss his calls to share a story or to pose a question. I will miss even more his inspiring example of grace and goodness, of kindness and optimism.


Roger B. Porter
Harvard University
December 1, 2005

Hugh Sidey, A Caricature by Matt Wuerker