It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.
Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).
When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.
Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicerresigned this week, originally stating his intent to stay on until August. Apparently new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci decided August was too long to wait for Spicer to leave and, as Spicer’s immediate boss, took the opportunity to name Spicer’s deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new press secretary, effective immediately. Mr. Spicer will most likely not be missed by anyone either inside the administration or in the press corps, though the satirists on the Saturday Night Live television show may miss him. They still have plenty of targets for satire in the current administration, starting with the Man with a Daily Message himself, the Tweeter-in-Chief.
The current administration has made no secret of its disdain for most of the press corps, certain favorites excluded, and may try to end daily briefings of White House reporters. It seems the briefings have been a White House ritual for so long that there was never a time they were not part of the scene. That is not the case. They are a fairly recent phenomenon in American history, and were not recognizable in their present form until the Eisenhower Administration. Even then the briefings were not conducted daily. It wasn’t until Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, was elected president at the end of the 1960s that press briefings became a daily occurrence. Nixon also had the Press Briefing Room moved to its current location in the West Wing when he ordered the indoor swimming pool covered over and converted to that purpose.
A 1970 caricature by Edmund S. Valtman of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who was widely recognized as President Nixon’s “hatchet man” in dealing with the press.
Strange that President Nixon should have been the one to increase the frequency of press briefings, considering his often contentious relationship with the Fourth Estate. Nixon was not alone among presidents in feeling vilified by the press, and vilifying the press in turn. Most presidents have kept the press at arm’s length at best, viewing them as a necessary evil and trying when they could to control the tone and substance of their reporting about the administration. “Spin control” has always been a concern of presidents and their aides, though that particular phrase for it didn’t catch on until the Reagan Administration.
A scene from the 1983 film The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman, in which the 7 Mercury astronauts assert their priorities over those of NASA scientists by pointing out their leverage with the press.
Theodore Roosevelt was a rarity in that he cultivated a cordial relationship with the press, all the more to get them on his side when he used the Bully Pulpit to push his favored policies through Congress. His distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, went even further in developing good relations with the press, personally conducting twice weekly off the record briefings in the Oval Office. As briefings and presidential press conferences became more common through the twentieth century, people came to accept them as an indication of openness and a window into the executive branch, however distorted and murky the view might be. At least there was communication, and official positions could be known by the press and public.
Now this administration wants to pull down the shades on its workings. It makes no difference that Mr. Spicer is being replaced by Ms. Sanders. It hardly makes any difference that briefings are fewer and characterized by disrespect for the press, since this administration has demonstrated openly its contempt for norms of civil political discourse. When you know you will be lied to and treated shabbily, why stand there and continue to take it? Sooner or later, even the most profit hungry of the media outlets may abandon the White House press briefing as a source of anything other than insubstantial blathering worthwhile only as a target for satire. This administration may then find out, if the people in it are capable of learning anything at all, that if no one is taking seriously their side of any story or even listening, then there is no more spin control. With a little self control, the press may even stop giving undue attention to the daily distraction of outrageous tweets issuing from the Oval Office, and start paying attention to the important issues affecting this country.
Audio of FDR’s first Fireside Chat on March 12, 1933.The respectful, civil discourse of a leader speaking as an adult to adults. Listening to this does take a little over thirteen minutes, however, while reading a tweet takes less than a minute.
Last Sunday, March 12, marked the 84th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat, as the series of thirty evening radio programs he did over the twelve years of his presidency came to be known. It was one week after his first inauguration (inaugurations up through 1933 took place on March 4), and he spoke on the banking crisis. He spoke in calm, even tones, with the intent of calming down a populace which had lost confidence in the banking system and withdrawn their funds in a panic. FDR’s fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, had famously touted the use of the Bully Pulpit when he was president at the beginning of the twentieth century, and now that radio had come into widespread use, FDR found himself with a Bully Pulpit that enabled him to speak directly to millions of his fellow Americans at a time, without the filter of the national press. FDR, to his credit, used the privilege of his Bully Pulpit to explain his policies in plain, respectful language, and to garner direct support for those policies from the populace.
FDR exiting car with assistance during a campaign trip to Hollywood, California, on September 24, 1932. Photographs like this are rare because press and official photographers avoided showing FDR’s debility out of consideration for the man.
Reminding us of all we have lost and may still lose.A poignant scene from Out of Africa, a 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who by all accounts are good people as well as fine actors.
Now we have found ourselves in an age where a new technology enables the president to use the Bully Pulpit in a new way, but sadly we don’t have a TR or an FDR available to make the best use of it. This is our own fault. This is the culmination of a sequence of bad cultural and political choices by all of us over the past forty years or more. Now a reality television bully of no intellectual or humanitarian distinction whatsoever occupies the Oval Office and has the Bully Pulpit, both technologically from his tweets and personally from his rallies, and his ugly pronouncements echo through a press that eagerly pursues the latest noisy distraction as if chasing a fire engine, all while his deputies commit atrocities on the economy, on the environment, on the very working and middle class people who voted him in, on everything and everybody that isn’t part of the Club. If you have to ask, “What Club?” then obviously you don’t belong. Look at Rex Tillerson, aka Wayne Tracker, formerly head of Exxon Mobil and now Secretary of State, and you will be looking at a member in good standing with the Club.
There’s little point and less fun in belaboring the obvious that the current president abuses the Bully Pulpit to air personal grievances and distract the press and the populace from his administration’s shortcomings, and to gloss over policies that take away from the many, who have little enough, in order to give to the few, who already have more than enough. Here’s a recommendation on how to deal with that: as much as possible considering the position of preeminence granted by the office he holds, ignore his Bully Pulpit abuses. Take a lesson from the actress Meryl Streep and don’t refer to him by name. Deny him the satisfactions of power that he seeks. Yes, it is that childish; yes, it is that schoolyard. He has given evidence of that himself. In all other matters political, do as your conscience dictates, of course, but in this matter of the Bully Pulpit recall past experience with schoolyard bullies by denying him the attention and deference he craves.
A fuller rendition of the same theme, by the Chamber Orchestra of New York, Salvatore Di Vittorio, Music Director, based on the great John Barry‘s original arrangement.