Archive for April 11th, 2005

The Presidents and the Media

The office of President of the United States is one of immense and unequaled power. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A President has a great chance; his position is almost that of a King and Prime Minister rolled into one.” The constitutional restrictions on the powers of a President are few, vague, and prone to abuse. The interpretation of the role of President, according to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, follows two main schools of thought: First, that without specific grant of statutory or constitutional power, the President should, and indeed may, not act. Secondly, and quite contrastingly, that the President should act and exercise his power, authority, and influence to the furthest extent possible unless clearly prohibited or limited in doing so. Until recently, the former view has prevailed, but recent years have seen a definite and distinct trend towards the latter school of thought.

In 1960, Gottfried Dietze wrote of the aggrandizement of the presidency as a result of the office’s standing as a symbol of democracy itself:

“This aggrandizement, which by the standards of the Founders can only be called revolutionary, was most obvious during the most revolutionary periods of American Constitutional development, mainly during the administrations of Jackson, Lincoln, and progressive presidents; periods that were characterized by a growth of democracy.”

He points out that the election of President Jackson by almost universal male suffrage served to increase the de-facto power and stature of the presidency, and that Lincoln was the first heir to this new degree of power. Presidents of the first part of the twentieth century added to the democratization of the office, and thereby it’s power, by assuming, with greater or lesser success, the role of chief legislator. This hubris was not without it’s price:

“The increases of assassinations ever since the aggrandizement of the Presidency became obvious makes us wonder. Before the Civil War, none of the fifteen presidents was killed; four of [the first] twenty have been assassinated since then. We bewail the fact that over eleven percent of American presidents would be assassinated. A more proper evaluation of this dilemma would be offered by saying that the percentage of Presidents killed was zero before the aggrandizement of the Presidency, and rose to as much as twenty percent afterward. Furthermore, it should give us pause that in recent decades, the only objects of assassination were personalities such as Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, whose strong desires to carry out ambitious social programs made the Presidency appear in it’s full strength, while Presidents under whom the institution appeared weak, such as Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower, were not objects.”

In more recent memory, the last President to suffer a serious assassination attempt was Ronald Reagan, which nicely supports Dietze’s theory just above. His argument is not, however, perfect; it neither accounts for attacks upon Presidents Garfield and McKinley, nor those strong individuals who escaped attack, such as Wilson.

Every bit as important a factor parallelling the frequency of assassination attempts against incumbents of the office has to do with the role of the media in our society. One of the most important factors in the rise of the Office of President as a symbol of America itself is the relationship that exists between the President and his followers as it is filtered through the mass media. In their 1969 report on assassination and political violence in the United States, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence notes that Americans are not, or were not, interested in politics purely as politics, but required a degree of human interest to hold their attention. They state that the media in this country was “no longer controlled by partisan considerations” and containing “an absence of a rigid partisan tone in the depiction of the everyday activities of the presidency”, with the emphasis on “objective news reporting”. By removing the political and partisan aspects of the President from public view, and concentrating on the sacredotal, he then becomes a “guardian of national morale” and, indeed, a living symbol of this country, the personification of national character itself. Thanks to the media, no longer was the President a partisan occupant of national office but a symbol of American society.

There was a drawback to this approach, though; rather than concentrating on the politics of the Presidency, the emphasis was on the personality and character of the Presidency. For charismatic and likeable Presidents, this meant that their role as a leader of world affairs became coupled with the role of a likeable, apprachable, and altogether human individual, little different from one’s relatives or coworkers. This position leaves a President vulnerable to individuals who seek out out public objects upon which to displace their very private hatred in the guise of “public interest”. Harold Laswell noted in his 1969 book “Psycopathology and Politics”:

The prominence of hate in politics suggests that we may find that the most important motive is a repressed and powerful hatred of authority, a hatred which has come to partial expression and repression in relation to the father, at least in the functions of biological progenerator and sociological father.”

In the last decade the media has to greater or lesser extents de-emphasized the human-interest aspects of the Presidency and returned to a highly partisan emphasis on the political aspects of the office. Whether this has more to do with corporate consolidation of the news industry or the altogether unremarkable and occasionally repulsive personal characteristerics of recent officeholders I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Published in: General, History | on April 11th, 2005 | Comments Off on The Presidents and the Media