The President, Persuasion, and the Press in the 20th Century
Throughout the course of the last half of the twentieth century, perceptions about the American Presidency have been determined to a large extent by White House communication strategies and portrayals constructed by the Fourth Estate. And yet, while historians agree on the importance of image in American politics, scholarship frequently treats the media as episodic and illustrative of change, not a negotiation or development itself. This panel will reconsider the origins and implications of White House publicity strategies and debates involved in presidential image-making. Building on new initiatives to bring an interdisciplinary lens to studying the American presidency, it will focus on the construction and negotiation of the image of U.S. presidents by White House personnel and the press, ultimately providing a more nuanced and complicated understanding of both the media and the presidency in American political history.
Assumptions about media history have contributed to a mythology surrounding the American presidency. Simply put, it states that although American presidents endured moments of negative press coverage, before the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, most enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the press. David Greenberg of Rutgers University will deconstruct that mythology, providing a new understanding of John F. Kennedy’s news management system and the credibility gap and adversarial relationship that emerged during the Cold War.
The emergence of the credibility gap under Johnson and Nixon’s hatred of the liberal establishment press has been well established by recent generations of historians. A lesser-known facet of political history that emerged during the era of the credibility gap is the attempts of presidents to circumvent the news media by “going public” through new communications mediums. Purdue University’s Kathryn Brownell will provide insight into how Richard Nixon waged a war against network television in the early 1970s by supporting an emerging cable television industry and using this new technology to sell his presidential agenda.
And yet, Nixon’s image battle transcended party lines. In the aftermath of Nixon and the Watergate scandal, Carter and his aides sought to establish rapport with the eastern establishment press and to develop an image of a common peanut farmer from Plains, who would establish a “new morality” in government. Soon, however, a problematic image of an enigmatic, Nixon-like candidate emerged in the national press. University of Tennessee media historian Amber Roessner’s presentation will explicate the evolution of a rabbit-bitten presidency.
Shortly after news of Carter and the killer rabbit surfaced in August 1979, the national news media’s attention turned to the coming 1980 election. Jim Baughman, the Fetzer-Bascom Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will consider the failure of the press to consider the long-term implications of Reagan’s “voodoo economics” and the inability of Carter’s campaign staff to emphasize the potential effects of his economic policy.
With assistance of valuable insights from chair/commentator Steven Hochman, the Director of Research at the Carter Center, each of the presenters will consider the negotiation of relationships, media messages, and presidential images in the last half of the twentieth century.