Much credit can be given to President Theodore Roosevelt for taking the press into the White House. In a figurative sense, he had a hand in forming what today has become a traditional White House press corps; in a literal sense, he welcomed them in from the cold, blustering rain one evening and gave reporters an established place in the White House.
If Teddy Roosevelt laid the groundwork for a mass communications strategy then his cousin President Franklin Roosevelt built up the relationship we can still see today between the press and the president. As Betty Winfield wrote in “FDR and the News Media,” FDR’s press relations “are so well known that they have continually been referred to for almost sixty years.”
So what is it that set Franklin Roosevelt apart from some of his predecessors? First, it likely helped that FDR’s immediate predecessor was Herbert Hoover. Dale Nelson tells us in “Who Speaks for the President?” that Hoover was rather withdrawn from interactions with the press. Hoover was quoted as as he would “clean that bunch out” when he was presented with the chance.
Hoover had a habit of not having any contact with reporters and keeping a low-profile. In one instance, Nelson writes, White House reporters were nearly left at the White House “when the president took off early for an end-of-summer weekend at the Shenandoah camp.” It was evident Hoover wasn’t fond of reporters, not that any specific president fully is, but this helped lay friendly relations for FDR once he went into office.
FDR also had the benefit of experiment on his relations with the press before becoming president. Many of the ways he handled the press as president stemmed from his time as governor of New York and in the Navy Department.
As president, FDR also abolished the practice of submitting written questions, which had been around for several administrations at this point. He also, jokingly, promised reporters he would not be reinstating the infamous Annanias Club. The club first came around during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure, it was commonly known as the place where reporters go when they’ve published something negative or critical of the president. Not necessarily false, although that happened as well. It was Theodore Roosevelt’s way of dividing “newsmen into distinct groups of insiders and outsiders,” as Juergens says in “News from the White House.”
Aside from doing away with written questions, it was largely FDR’s “warm personality and his informal style” which influenced his press conferences and his relationship with the press. He often went out of his way to ensure reporters had a nice play to stay while covering him, one time reporters asked if they could use the tennis courts (to which Eleanor Roosevelt gained them access to) and there were dinners and balls which reporters and their spouses were permitted to attend.
Theodore Roosevelt may have let reporters in the door, but FDR was the one giving them the keys to the oldsmobile and encouraging them to take it for a quick spin around the block. However, his nurturing of the press, in combination with his “personality, his familiarity, his good humor, and his small kindness” was considered by some a form of “psychological bribery.”
This psychological bribery was best explained by New York Times Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock. Krock said he would try and maintain a distance from FDR, going so far as to not attend his press conferences. The president once wondered about his absences from the press conferences and Krock replied he was unable to keep his “objectivity when I’m close to you and watching you in action. You charm me so much that when I go back and write comment on the proceedings, I can’t keep it in balance.”
Part of FDR’s charm did mean generating a lot of good, favorable news stories. Much of his charm, apart from perhaps coming naturally, came from the rules he established for news. His rules for background information and off-the-record information often gave reporters crucial inside information for stories, but also allowed them to be pulled into FDR’s inner circle in a way, as if they were all bound by sharing a secret and timid to betray FDR, after all, he had shown them a kindness and formality they had not experienced before.
Perhaps this psychological bribery was best seen in reporters’ hesitance — or refusal in many cases — not to photograph FDR in circumstances where it was clear his inability to walk was impeding him.
“News photographers in the 1920s voluntarily destroyed their own plates when they showed Roosevelt in poses that revealed his handicap,” William Leuchtenburg is quoted as saying in “FDR and the News Media.”
The press accepted this restriction, as I’ve previously mentioned, because it was a form of that psychological bribery. It would be unthinkable now that the press would accept such restrictions. There were hours of cable news coverage last year when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton left a Sept. 11 memorial service after feeling “overheated.” Her campaign later said she had pneumonia.
Even President Donald Trump had press coverage on his health, albeit some of it consisted of coverage with his oddly eccentric looking doctor and an appearance on Dr. Oz.
I don’t think the press should have accepted this restriction. To their credit, I also don’t believe they made a spectacle of FDR’s health. Just because he was unable to maneuver his legs didn’t mean he was unable to govern. Even without the photographs, FDR’s “spectacular display of physical endurance endowed him with media celebrity status. However, he would have to keep proving his physical ability again and again.”
The truth of the matter was FDR had polio. I’d like to imagine had things been different at the time of FDR’s presidency, or if they were in fact different now, there would have been a greater acceptance for a president who had a disability, both in those times and today.
Even by today’s standards, no matter how good at you are at any job, if you possess any kind of disability there’s the feeling you’ll need to continue to prove yourself, and FDR didn’t escape this then and I don’t believe he would today either. However, I would still maintain the press should not have accepted this restriction and did the public a disservice by allowing it.