President Barack Obama’s inauguration today brings two other dates to mind:
Twenty years ago today, I was an intern at the Telegraph & News of Macon, Georgia, helping edit the front page that included news of George H.W. Bush’s inauguration as president.
And 20 years before that, I was in diapers as Richard M. Nixon was sworn in as president.
Unlike Obama, both Nixon and Bush had relationships with the media that were strained, at best, and often disastrous.
I have nearly finished reading Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: Ruin and Recovery and among other truths, Ambrose shows that Nixon recognized the impact of public relations perception on his political viability.
At the same time, it’s even more obvious that he terribly misgauged the magnitude of his actions on generating the worst kind of PR. He also had a fundamentally flawed view of the media’s very nature. He tried to battle journalism’s investigative, cynical, “gotcha” qualities instead of accepting those traits as fact and proceeding accordingly.
Nixon Options: From Bad to Much Worse
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the June 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in, Nixon’s options ranged from really, really bad (if he had ‘fessed up immediately that his subordinates–though not Nixon himself–had ordered and orchestrated the botched Watergate break-in) to politically lethal (hide his subordinates’ role and then hide his role in the cover-up, then conceal each successive half-truth, distortion or outright lie that followed in the tangled web).
As for the elder Bush—fittingly, as the Republican Party’s National Chairman he was among those advising Nixon during the disintegration of Nixon’s administration in 1973-74—his view of the media became remarkably unrealistic and embittered over time.
In January 1997, four years after he left office, Bush 41 issued a ridiculously impossible “no media allowed” demand on a talk that he gave in Elgin, Ill., where I was a reporter at the time for The Courier News.
What brought him to town? He was the featured speaker at Money magazine’s “adoption” of the city to teach personal finance lessons. While the magazine was at it, maybe they should have added a PR lesson for Bush.
As his talk before thousands at Elgin High’s gymnasium approached, reality set in, and Bush’s handlers had no choice but to “waive” the unenforceable media ban.
Obama, on the other hand, appears to have developed a clear-eyed view that he can influence, but not impose his will, on the media.
That realism will be put to the test as his honeymoon media-darling phase comes to a close in rapid fashion, and he begins bearing the inevitable brunt of criticism that confronts all Presidents.
This essay also appeared in the Marshfield (Ma.) Mariner, the publication where I began my journalism career 25 years ago.