Jewish World Review April 23, 1999 /7 Iyar, 5759
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Washington rose above the press.
John Adams despised the press, beginning a long and honored tradition in the White House.
Jefferson suffered the press, at least for as long as he could. The press in his day was as insufferable as the media today.
The Jacksonians created their own press.
Lincoln, after writing his own account of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (in which he came out very well), followed his ideas no matter what the newspapers said -- and saved the Union.
Teddy Roosevelt needed no publicity agent; he was his own.
Woodrow Wilson seemed to believe his own press clips, always a mistake for a public figure.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the absolute master of his preferred medium -- radio. He may have been the first president to demonstrate the fading power of the written word by his mastery of the spoken one.
Ike didn't need to be articulate; he had that smile. He demonstrated how the speaker could substitute for the speech.
Richard Nixon didn't need any help to sink himself, but he got plenty from the media. He was one of the many politicians who ran against the press and with great success. But in the end not even the enmity of the media could save him. There came a time when he was even more despised than the press.
Ronald Reagan, The Music Man, didn't need the press, just a camera. Much like John F. Kennedy before him. Both were charmers. JFK came on with some subtlety; The Great Communicator marched on with 76 trombones and restored a nation's confidence.
Happily, the health of the American presidency is largely independent of the press. But it is not independent of the presidents who have shaped the office -- their character and competence, their convictions and compromises.
Some of the most popular of presidents have proven the least effectual. Poor Warren Harding springs to mind like a hangover. So does the current occupant of the office.
Some of the most reviled presidents have proven the greatest. Yes, I'm thinking of Lincoln. Then again, some of the most reviled presidents needed to be. No need to go into detail.
Yes, it is possible to over-estimate the importance of character in a president. Grover Cleveland may have been the last president of the United States of impeccable character. Or maybe it was Herbert Hoover. It scarcely matters. However they may have affected the country, neither would seem to have had any discernible influence on the character of the presidency.
At any rate, impeccable character in a president would not seem to be the greatest problem facing the country today. William Jefferson Clinton, as he is known in state papers, articles of impeachment and contempt citations, just keeps bobbing along, unsinkable, riding the popular tide.
The American presidency is today decidedly weaker than this president found it, but it has been even weaker before. It will recover.
Prediction: In the hands of a president less interested in using its powers as a personal shield, the presidency will emerge stronger in the future. There are cycles in these matters.
Presidential power, like American power abroad, is much more impressive when it can be assumed than when it must be employed. In that respect it's much like the nation's alliances. See the proud history and troubled present of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It has been one of the most successful military and political arrangements in recent history. It bestrides the world -- so long as it doesn't need to be invoked.
But somehow this president has managed to erode even NATO's credibility -- just in time for its 50th anniversary. The allies' ability to assure stability in Europe now hinges on whether this president will remain steadfast or slink away and call it peace in our time. By this time NATO's commander -- Wesley Clark -- must be the most frustrated man in the Western world. Having to wage war by committee will do that to a general.
The most unsettling aspect of both the presidency and the press in this poll-driven age is an excess of caution -- a failure of faith in the nation's ideas, beliefs, traditions. It's as if both the presidency and the press have grown fearful of where those ideals might lead -- and what they might demand of us.
It's as if both the president and his critics seek not to lead public opinion but only to reflect it. That's troublesome.
Yes, there are cycles in these matters. Surely a sense of confidence and direction will return -- just as the Progressive Era followed the Gilded Age. A new burst of energy and vision followed the last decade of the last century. Maybe it'll soon happen again.
Some of us can
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