My favorite quote is from legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. “History repeats itself. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.”
Want proof? Consider the perpetual shouting match between President Trump and the news media where they scream “Fake news!” and “Collusion!” at each other. It’s unpleasant, undignified, and unseemly. It’s also unoriginal. Because their tiff is nothing compared to the rocky relationship shared by America’s longest-serving president and the reporters who covered him.
Journalists of the 1930s and 40s willingly hid the extent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s physical disability. True, Americans knew he’d been paralyzed by polio. But news stories never mentioned the fact that FDR was completely wheelchair bound.
So, it may come as a surprise that Roosevelt had repeated knockdown, drag-out brawls with the same reporters who sheltered his secret.
In many ways, Roosevelt and Trump started out on a similar note with the news media. Both were wealthy New Yorkers with a knack for saying things that wound up in print. They were good copy, as editors used to say, and they played the media like a violin.
But things changed once each moved into the White House.
Roosevelt enjoyed an extended honeymoon with the press his first year as president. Yet, FDR’s legendary charm began wearing thin in 1934. By 1935, things were sliding into open warfare. He repeatedly griped about what he called “poisonous propaganda.” In the president’s mind, any reporter who wasn’t strongly for him was against him. Asking tough questions about his New Deal programs amounted to treason. Roosevelt took those questions as personal attacks and nurtured bitter grudges.
By the time he ran for re-election in 1936, he complained that 85 percent of the press was against him. (Although that didn’t prevent him from winning one of history’s biggest landslides.)
The Roosevelt administration especially played hardball with the new, and highly influential, medium of radio. When the FCC was created in 1934 (bringing broadcasters under federal regulation for the first time), FDR tapped the man who’d handled radio in his 1932 presidential campaign to head it. Radio networks got the message pronto: Don’t question Team Roosevelt, and nobody gets hurt. Henry A. Bellows, vice president of CBS Radio noted, “no broadcast would be permitted over the Columbia Broadcasting System that in any way was critical of any policy of the Administration.”
Things sunk to an all-time low in 1942. The first year of our involvement in World War II went badly for America. It was a rough way to start a war. During his Dec. 18 news conference at the White House, FDR shocked reporters by producing a Nazi Iron Cross medal, symbol of Germany’s dictatorial militarism, handed it to a New York Daily News reporter and instructed him to give it to columnist John O’Donnell at his paper. FDR said O’Donnell had earned it by giving aid and comfort to the enemy through his columns. And it didn’t stop there.
O’Donnell later covered the fighting in Europe. Returning home in 1945, he and another reporter had their White House credentials yanked due to “their isolationist, anti-British, anti-Russian pens.” A nasty spat followed, eventually becoming public when it spilled into the Philadelphia Record’s pages. It grew so nasty that Steve Early, the very first White House press secretary, threatened to resign if the men’s credentials weren’t returned. FDR grudgingly complied.
Consider this incident from 1937. When the New York Times’ Bob Post asked about reports that Roosevelt planned to seek an unprecedented third term in office in 1940, the president became visibly upset. “Oh, my God,” FDR snapped as he handed Post an invisible dunce cup. “Go into the corner over there and put on the dunce cap and stand with your back to the crowd.” Most reporters laughed, although they privately said Roosevelt had gone too far. Post was humiliated.
Fake news, an Iron Cross for perceived unfairness … the inherent conflict between journalists and the president has been going long before Trump arrived in Washington. History repeats itself, remember? That’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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