History doesn’t repeat itself, but White Houses do.
That’s what veteran reporter James Deakin concluded in his 1984 book Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth, his distillation of a lifetime of covering the White House. Every president who rides into town on victory’s wave enjoys a “honeymoon” of sorts with the press—Obama being no exception—before becoming the last to realize that his trajectory has carried him over the falls.
Deakin, who reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and died in 2007, found that every president ultimately finds himself straitjacketed by a standard press template no matter how he conducts himself in office. Reporters tend to boil his performance down into these binaries, Deakin writes:
How is the president getting along with the news media? Are they treating him well or badly? Is he a master of communications or an ineffective performer on the tube? Is he accessible to reporters and candid with them? Or is he secretive, misleading the press and throwing a cloak of national security over the administration’s precious bodily fluids? Why doesn’t he have more press conferences? Why have his press conferences become such increasingly meaningless spectacles? Why does he manipulate the press so brazenly to achieve his purposes? Why doesn’t he use the press more effectively to achieve his purposes? Why is the press so subservient to the president? Why is the press so hostile to the president?
Obama had such a winning relationship with the press that when he joked, “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me,” at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, he won laughter and applause. But as Josh Gerstein and Patrick Gavin wrote in Politicoearlier this year, the dinner cheers were quickly replaced by a “surprising hostile relationship—as contentious on a day-to-day basis as any between press and president in the past decade.”
The deeply reported Politico piece echoes the key elements in Deakin’s paragraph. Obama talks less to the press than Clinton or Bush did, Politico reports. The White House is “thin skinned,” “controlling,” and “stingy with even basic information.” His press secretary “can be distant and difficult to reach” The New York Times receives “gift-wrapped scoops and loads of presidential face time.” Obama “rarely lets a chance go by to make a critical or sarcastic comment about the press, its superficiality or its short-term mentality.” He holds few press conferences. And so on.
If White Houses repeat themselves, so do press columnists—especially me. This is the second time I’ve written about Deakin’s book and published his prescient paragraph, the first time being just after the November 2008 election in a piece titled “The Coming Obama-Press War.” The press turns on new presidents not because they’re a pack of rabid dogs—which they are—but because everybody turns on new presidents, especially his most ardent supporters, who always feel betrayed by their candidate. And like candidates before him, Obama has angered these constituents. He made 500 promises during the campaign, and according to PolitiFact.com, he’s kept 122 of them, compromised on 40, broken 23, stalled on 84, and not yet addressed 234.
One chapter of the repeating “soap opera” Deakin describes hasn’t played itself out yet: Obama has yet to blame the press for his failures, probably because he thinks they’re too incompetent to undermine him. But that, too, will come.
The endless struggle between the White House and the press isn’t just about the control of information. As Deakin writes, governments often don’t have enough information on hand to make decisions. That means that sometimes, the impatient press wants more from the press secretary and the president than they have on hand: Not all stonewalling is designed to prevent the press from finding out. Sometimes it’s to prevent the press from learning what the White House doesn’t know. The White House handles these contingencies with the boilerplate phrase, “When we have something to announce, we will announce it.”
Other underlying causes of tension, provided by Deakin: The press loves to report how decisions are made as they’re being made, while the White House wants to remain silent until it is ready to announce the decision. The White House doesn’t like to be criticized; the press lives to criticize. The White House likes to gloss over mistakes; the press exists to broadcast those mistakes. Each White House learns that the press is unmanageable, that it’s not a unified beast but a snake pit of competing reporters. Favoring one reporter or two reporters or 20 reporters isn’t going to stop the 21st reporter from finding the damaging story and publishing it.
The moral of the story is that in the modern era there has never been a genuine honeymoon between presidents and the press. For how can you honeymoon with somebody if you’ve not married them?
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