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The White House Spokesman

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Not the least of the distinctions of the American plan of government is that it has tried new devices and made important contributions to democratic theory. The success of our political institutions has been in the main the success of a written constitution, setting up republican government over a huge territory for peoples in different stages of economic and political development. This was a tremendous experiment, and gloomy forebodings of disaster were well nigh universal. The experiment was assisted by several important inventions. In respect of the separation of powers, bicameralism, astronomical elections, constitutional protection of the individual, and judicial supremacy, the Constitution placed in the governmental machine wheels and valves which, though adapted in part from England or the Colonies, were put to novel uses, and in this sense were original creations.

Nor did the inventions end with the drafting of the Constitution. That instrument of government but inadequately explains our political processes, for we have developed conventions and customs in such number as to defy complete enumeration, and of such importance as to challenge the primacy of the written word. Direct election of the President, political parties, nominating conventions, the importance of Congressional Committees, the universal connection of Congressmen by residence with the districts they represent, Senatorial courtesy—all these matters are outside the Constitution. They profoundly influence, if indeed they do not determine, the character of our political life. Their importance is only equalled by their novelty, for these conventions are distinctly our own; they have few counterparts in other popular governments, and it is a striking fact that, with all our wealth of successful experiment, the American Constitution has had slight influence on foreign systems. Our political institutions function without imitation; our proprietary right is protected, not by patent, but by foreign distrust. This, I fancy, will be the fate of our most recent, but not the least important invention—the White House “spokesman.” This newly appointed, anonymous, extra-legal official is undergoing no evolution; he has sprung forth full panoplied from the forehead of the God of Publicity. He is important enough to warrant consideration and, as I hope to demonstrate, dangerous enough to deserve reprehension.

It is now trite to say that the American President is the most powerful elected ruler in the world. The Constitution grants him enormous authority, and he is almost completely free from the checks which many governmental systems place upon the chief of the executive. He is, that is to say, not dependent upon a majority in the legislature; he holds office by the calendar, and not by parliamentary or public approval; and he can be removed only by the cumbersome and almost impossible process of impeachment. He governs in his own name, and by his own authority; no ministerial countersignature is necessary to validate his acts. The party machine is for the time being the machine of the President. His tremendous appointing power can be and is used to give him a national body of supporters who constitute a personal caucus to rally to support his side, and, if he desires, to work for his renomination and election. His powers of appointment and veto, and his position as the only elected representative of the nation permit him on occasion to make Congress do his bidding; and apart from legislation, in the field of administration, there are ample areas in which the President has from the Constitution and statute full and irresponsible authority. Indeed, impeachment aside, the main check upon a President in respect of executive power is the restraint of public opinion. Publicists like Walter Lippmann are now arguing the ineffectiveness of public opinion when it is expressed biennially or quadrennially in the polling booth; but there is no need to argue its vagueness and impotence as a day by day check on the President. Yet it is the principal restraint that our constitutional system affords, and hence the importance of the methods by which the President creates or encourages a favorable public sentiment. The principal method is newspaper publicity: the exploitation of a willing President by a complacent press. If such a circle of partiality were only personal, it would do no more than turn up a few political noses; but unfortunately the relationship is institutional as well, and it has consequences which are possible only under a system of government such as that set up by the Constitution of the United States.

The President gives audiences to all the Washington newspaper correspondents on Tuesdays at noon and on Fridays at four o’clock. From fifty to one hundred correspondents troop into the executive offices and listen to the President answer or refuse to answer written questions which have been given to him in advance, and supplementary oral questions which arise out of the written interrogations. The correspondents’ primary concern is not with the President’s point of view, so that they may write more intelligent critiques or analyses of the course of politics. Above everything else they are anxious for news, and consequently all kinds of questions are asked. If the President can be persuaded to express an opinion that the new wide-bottomed trousers so popular among college boys are too extreme a style (an actual presidential emanation from one White House conference), a dispatch results; news has been created. The papers, therefore, rarely appear on Wednesdays and Saturdays without devoting considerable space to the opinions of the President on various subjects, both connected and unconnected with politics. The only limitation on this process of getting the views of the President before the country is that there must be no direct quotation. This means no more than that the President’s opinions must not be put in quotation marks or too directly attributed to him. Consequently the dispatches read somewhat as follows: “It was stated by a high authority at the White House today;” or “callers at the White House were today informed that President Coolidge is of the opinion;” or “a high official of the government is authority for the statement;” or “a White House spokesman said;” or “a spokesman for the President let it be known.” This anonymity is thinly veiled. Everyone knows that the opinions attributed to these mythical personages are the opinions of the President given by himself to the listening correspondents. The views expressed, as has been said, do not relate exclusively to public affairs. Last Spring “a White House spokesman” delivered a long dissertation on angling which, in his opinion, was a sport suitable for children but not for adults. Again, “callers at the White House” learned that the President believed the Easter season not to require any large expenditures for clothes, and that he himself was to wear an old suit to church. The Government’s economy should set an example for personal economy. But this advice from the President gave rise to a chorus of protest from haberdashers who saw their sales diminished by persons anxious to emulate the President’s boasted sartorial restraint. In order to encourage business, therefore, a “White House spokesman” announced that the President would have a new suit, and that too stringent economy was not a good thing for the prosperity of the country, a volte face which embarrassed neither the mythical spokesman nor the newspapers. Perhaps because they had only a traditional and not an economic interest, college sophomores did not challenge the President’s opinion that hazing was not a proper form of discipline for freshmen.

Such injunctions to an expectant, and for the most part docile people might seem to indicate Mr. Coolidge’s belief that his election as President gave him a mandate to offer advice on matters of etiquette and personal habits. Quite different is the intention. The President’s semi-weekly emanations—though in some cases presumptuous and cheap —have a political significance. He uses the press to keep himself in the public eye. A quarter of a century ago only opera stars, actors, and circuses had press agents. Now, partly as a result of the War which showed the tremendous power of propaganda, organized publicity is a great American industry. Getting into print is the ambition of banking houses, hotels, business men, charitable enterprises, universities, bearded ladies and statesmen. The most eminent statesman—the President—has a secretary who is little more than a glorified press agent, and who devotes continuous thought to keeping the White House on the front pages. The publicity organization of the Party uses every avenue of information—newspapers, magazines, the cinema, the radio, the stage, the pulpit, the school; and the President in his conferences with the Washington correspondents makes successful semi-weekly plunges into print. An opera star, a business man or an ordinary politician is not so fortunate unless he has something to say, or unless marriage, divorce, or landing from Europe makes him at the moment of particular interest. The President’s eminence, however, is such that the newspapers will publish whatever he says, whether it be trivial, important, dull, acute, exact, or incorrect. Hence there is no difficulty whatever in having the papers devote space to the occupant of the White House and his thoughts on political and non-political subjects. It is the amount and regularity of the space that count, not the pertinence or the sense of the thoughts. This would not be of political importance if the President were only a titular, a ceremonial executive; but he, unlike European Kings or Presidents, combines the theatrical and the efficient functions of government. In the White House conferences with correspondents these functions are inextricably mixed.

Conferences at the White House are not an old institution, and ex-cathedra utterances from that edifice on sport and manners are even more recent. In President Cleveland’s time the Washington correspondents rarely saw the President. They got information about public affairs as best they could, and then wrote their own analyses of the political situation in Washington. They were political journalists rather than news gatherers. Mr. Roosevelt, however, was accustomed to see correspondents whom he especially liked, and get them to put his views on certain questions before the public as their own guesses. These ballons d’essai enabled him to estimate the country’s reaction and shape his course accordingly. But Mr. Roosevelt and his successor, Mr. Taft, limited their contacts with the press to particular journalists in whom they had confidence; and they were only interested in support for their policies. They did not scheme to advertise themselves; they cared nothing about figuring in the papers simply to keep their names before the public.

The new regime, strangely enough, was inaugurated by Mr. Wilson. When the Democratic administration began in 1913 one of the slogans was “pitiless publicity.” Mr. Wilson had said that the executive business should be conducted “behind glass doors.” It was this theory which led to the holding of semi-weekly conferences between the President and all the pressmen in Washington, hut it was not long before the plan was abandoned. The reasons were our acute relations with Mexico and the problems of neutrality which arose after the outbreak of the war. It was not thought desirable that these delicate questions should be discussed by the President (even with direct quotation barred) in the presence of several score newspaper men. After Mr. Wilson was reelected in 1916 there was just one such conference and then the institution lapsed completely, to be revived and profoundly modified by Mr. Harding. The change was in the greater range of the subjects considered at the conferences, and in the deliberateness of the attempt to “get publicity” for the President and his doings. No detail of the personal life of the occupants of the White House seemed too trivial to be told of. An American humorist once said that a person on a surgeon’s operating table had no more privacy than a gold fish. The White House submitted to a continuous operation by publicity specialists. Clothes, tastes, pets, amusements and habits were always on public parade and an ex-newspaper man was attached to the White House staff to think up ways of “selling” the President to the public.

In his semi-weekly conferences, Mr. Harding at first made it a rule that the correspondents could ask any questions without previous notice to him. He was willing to appear in mental deshabille. Mr. Harding, however, was not a man of particularly acute perceptions, and his conferences soon disclosed that many of the journalists were keener and better informed than he was on the public business about which they inquired. The President’s extemporaneous answers, therefore, were occasionally imprudent and inaccurate. When the Washington conference on the limitation of armament wras in session, for example, someone asked the President whether the four power treaty included a guarantee of the home islands of Japan. Harding replied that it did not; but Secretary Hughes and all the delegates to the Conference were of the opinion that the treaty did cover the islands. It was necessary, therefore, for Mr. Harding to give out a corrected statement and the ensuing public discussion was such that the treaty was modified and the mooted territory was excluded. This incident resulted in a rule that the questions must be in writing; that the President must have notice. Mr. Coolidge continued the institution with no change except that the range of subjects discussed has been greatly extended, and on two or three occasions the remarks of “the White House spokesman” have excited the umbrage of European governments.

Last Spring a year ago M. Jusserand, then French Ambassador to the United States, made a public speech in which he mentioned his government’s attitude toward the payment of the French debt to the United States. A day or two later “the White House” was quoted to the effect that Ambassador Jusserand should not have made his statement to a public audience but to the officials of the American Government. The newspapers plainly intimated that the President’s views (which they were reporting) constituted a rebuke of the Ambassador for his indiscretion. Such an anonymous rebuke of an Ambassador, however, was rather unprecedented and outrageous. M. Jusserand promptly protested to the State Department. The State Department told Mr. Coolidge that he had been indiscreet and consequently the correspondents were authorized to say that no criticism had been intended or expressed, and the incident was closed. The anonymity which cloaks the presidential utterances had put the responsibility on the newspapers and it was sought to convey the impression that the indiscretion was theirs. Something similar happened when the Herriot Government fell. Mr. Coolidge had a conference with the correspondents on Friday, April 10th. The next day the papers reported the President’s views on the French Cabinet crisis. According to the New York Herald-Tribune: “The President judges that the French Premier has gone out of power on account of great difficulties attending French financing, difficulties which existed before he took office and for which he was not to blame.” The dispatch in the New York Times was substantially the same: “The President has read with sympathy the views expressed that M. Herriot’s financial difficulties were not of his own making, but were inherited.” These remarks were cabled to Paris and there was a chorus of excited protest. It was, as the Liberie declared, a “shocking intervention” in French politics; but at the next conference the explanation was made that the President’s comments on French politics had been general; he had not meant to interfere, and he had not intended any criticism of the pre-Herriot, Poincare regime.

Now it may be said, of course, that these incidents simply show the failure of the President to realize the nature of the statements he authorized to be made in his name anonymously (which is what happens at the White House conferences); but the problem goes much deeper than this. The President of the United States has at his disposal the most powerful publicity agency that any man has ever had. He can get tremendous benefits from it, and, except on rare occasions, when he is particularly indiscreet, he can suffer little or no harm. Responsibility can be dodged, and the indiscretion is promptly forgotten. Yet so far as information to the public is concerned, the White House conference has no value. It is not necessary to enlighten the pressmen or the public on pending legislation or the Administration’s program, and policies. The conferences are simply a means of creating news, and it is as news that the President’s views are reported. Mr. Coolidge on the marriage customs of primitive peoples would receive more space than Mr. Coolidge on the surtaxes, and when public affairs are discussed, the correspondents simply report; they venture no independent criticism or analysis.

Tabulation of the utterances of the White House “spokesman” for any fortnight, selected at random, will make it plain that I am not exaggerating. During the two weeks before the close of the 68th Congress, on March 4th last year, for example, the Washington correspondents reported the President’s views on the following political matters: farm legislation, the disposition of Muscle Shoals, the flexible provisions of the tariff act authorizing the executive to change the rates, the return of German property to its owners, the creation of an independent air service, the fitness of Mr. Warren to be Attorney General, the objections to an increase of the pay of postal employees unless coupled with an increase of revenues, the American attitude toward the French debt, willingness to hold an Arms Conference as shown by European nations in response to the Administration’s “feeler,” and, only two days later, willingness to hold an Arms Conference as shown by European nations in response to their own noble instincts, for there had been no Administration “feeler.” The President in respect of these matters authorized the Washington correspondents to report his position to the country: on the Arms Conference indeed, he took two conflicting positions. In every case the executive was speaking in an irresponsible manner; he could, that is to say, disavow his statement. In no case could Mr. Coolidge be asked for the basis of his opinions; no Congressional critic could ask questions or suggest considerations to show that the President’s position was untenable, and no critical correspondent would venture to suggest incorrectness or inadequacy. On the contrary, what happened during the closing weeks of the last Congress— and what happens all the time—is that the President speaks to the country without the danger of being held responsible, and with no fear of embarrassing contradiction or reply. If unhappily the statements made are inaccurate, it is the newspapers that have to appear to take the blame.

Perhaps, however, the most audacious exploitation of the President was in connection with the coal strike. This has been largely unnoticed, and it is worthwhile to recall the facts. The miners and the operators were in conference in Atlantic City last July, and the date of the stoppage was known. The country showed some signs of nervousness, and reassuring statements began to come from the Summer White House in Swampscott. On July 18th, after a conference between the President and Secretary of Labor Davis, it was announced that “The Government has decided upon positive steps to be taken in case of a coal strike.” President Coolidge believed that his undisclosed plan which “had been carefully worked out under his direction” would “be effective in the event the miners and operators failed to reach a settlement by the end of August.” The next day an anonymous spokesman for the President declared him to be “determined to prevent the coal strike.” The President had “let the operators know that he will exert all the pressure possible to keep the hard coal mines operating and to prevent the condition of three years ago when the public suffered greatly.” On July 21st, President Coolidge’s opinion was that there was “no danger of a hard coal strike” but even then doubts began to appear, and the President assured the country that “the strike cannot be of long duration.” On July 25th, “Mr. Coolidge indicated” that he was giving the coal situation “earnest thought” and that he “was prepared to exert the pressure of the Federal Government, representing public opinion.” By July 27th, the President’s position was “that it would be premature to assume that this dispute is not going to be settled within the industry,” and there were intimations that the President, extremely anxious to act, was handicapped by lack of constitutional powers. The tune changed again. If a strike occurred it could not be of long duration, for there were ample supplies of anthracite in the country, and when these were exhausted substitutes could be used. Such matters were discussed exuberantly, but never quantitatively; the country was not told just how much anthracite was available.

For weeks Mr. Coolidge’s thoughts, plans and hopes were the daily pabulum of the American people, but the hundreds of dispatches which were published had one serious effect; they lulled the country into a false security. Almost without exception, the newspapers aided what was an advertisement for the President at the same time that it was a sedative for the public. It is possible, of course, that real leadership would have failed to arouse the country and to enable the President to force operators and miners to accept a fair agreement, but the point is that if an agreement had been reached and the strike averted, the Swampscott emanations would have made the country think that the President had some share in averting the calamity. Even though the strike occurred, the exploitation of the President made the country believe that he was watching their interests, and in any event political memories are proverbially short. To the great mass of people there seems nothing incongruous in a President advertised as the breaker of the Boston Police strike failing to exert himself to avert the coal strike. In the latter case the advertisement was simply less effective, but there were few days during the summer when the President was not on the front pages. After the return to Washington, coal was rarely mentioned; other subjects served for advertising purposes. Users of coal will know the reason.

Somewhat the same relationship exists between the departments and the press. Members of the Cabinet or their deputies have regular conferences with the Washington news gatherers. Most Departments, moreover, have employees whose principal duties are to see that the Department gets a large amount of publicity; that the Cabinet members are photographed frequently, and that the public is led to think that affairs are being efficiently and successfully conducted. The attitude of the United States toward Russia is indicated by an “unofficial spokesman” of the State Department. A “high authority of the State Department” announces that American troops have landed in Honduras to protect American lives and property, and the dispatches give the most plausible statements of the reason for, and the extent of, the intervention. In other words, the newspapers are used as irresponsible agents of the Departments and the White House to get certain news before the country. It is not government by discussion. It is government by favorable publicity. Statements of the government’s intentions and activities are ex parte. The “spokesman” or the “high authorities” can refuse to answer questions which seek to probe for possible defects or objections. There is no openness of discussion as in a parliamentary system where the executive answers questions publicly, and a failure to answer can be put down as an attempt to conceal or as ignorance greater than should be found in high places. The Secretary of State in person would never dream of giving to Congress the brief, ofttimes misleading statements with which the press must necessarily be content; and if he did give such statements, a critic of the administration could by questions show their inadequacy and the newspapers would publish an antidote along with the official explanation of the Administration’s position.

While he was in office Secretary Hughes seemed to attach considerable importance to his meetings with the correspondents, and to think that they were an admirable institution. He never seemed to recognize the fact that the State Department was using the press for its own purposes, and that public discussion was being prejudiced, if not prevented. He did realize, however, that more intimate contacts between executive and Congress might be beneficial. In a speech delivered in 1922 he said:

“Whatever the advantages of our governmental arrangements—and I should be the last to underestimate them [the usual praise which American statesmen bestow on the Constitution] I think it should be candidly admitted that they have the effect of limiting the opportunities for the responsible discussion which aids in the understanding of foreign policy. . . . The separateness of the executive power under our system, while it has advantages which have been deemed to be of controlling importance, deprives the executive of the opportunities open to parliamentary leaders, of participation in parliamentary debates. . . . There is lacking the direct personal relation to the discussions of the Senate when foreign affairs are under consideration. The advantage of oral explication and of meeting each exigency as it arises in the course of discussion and thus of aiding in the formation of public opinion in the manner best adapted to that purpose is not open to the Secretary of State. There are numerous situations in which an opportunity for the executive through his Department chiefs to explain matters of policy would be of the greatest aid in securing an intelligent judgment.”

There is no disposition, however, on the part either of Congress or of the Executive to increase the discussion of current political problems. The Representatives and Senators can never question the President or Cabinet members except as the latter make rare appearances before Congressional Committees, and these bodies deal with past events rather than current business. The White House, in other words, is at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Capitol is at the other, and there are no interchanges in the nature of discussion. There are simply ex parte announcements in the press and the President may show a continuous disdain of Congress except as that body’s approval is necessary for the Administration’s legislative programme. Mr. Coolidge’s conferences with the Washington correspondents are simply an index of this separateness and of the fact that the Executive seeks for public rather than Congressional support and approval.

There are, of course, speeches on the floor of Congress when it is in session, but they are also in vacuo so far as controversies between the legislative and executive departments are concerned. Only rarely is criticism of the executive in Congress answered by a legislative spokesman for the Administration, and then he is frequently an unofficial friend of the President. He speaks on personal or party grounds and not because of any relationship between executive and legislature. The American Congress in other words, completely fails in its duty as a critic of the executive, and the successful executive, speaking anonymously at the press conferences, or in vague generalities on the platform, is able to avoid criticism in the press. Indeed, when the last Congressional session came to an end, the White House “spokesman” put forward the suggestion that during the summer the newspapers should devote but little space to the discussion of public affairs. Silence, in the President’s opinion “would be good for business.” It would be time enough in December when the new Congress met to begin to talk about legislative measures that might make the business interests feel uneasy. But this suggestion shows something more than solicitude for the financial interests; it shows that government by discussion is held in low esteem.

Nevertheless few objections have been raised. To be sure, Mr. Coolidge’s indiscretions in respect of MM. Jusserand and Herriot killed off the White House “spokesman,” but only the opprobrious name was dropped; during the summer the correspondents quoted “callers” or “those in a position to know the mind of the President.” When Mr. Coolidge returned to Washington, the “spokesman” was resurrected completely and impudently. On September 18th he called upon the newspapers of the country to support the Administration’s attitude in respect of funding the debt. He declared, according to the New York World that “the American press should look after the interests of the United States rather than other nations” and said that “one would be unlikely to find the United States imposing unbearable hardships on other countries.” “If newspapers were doubtful, they generally would do right by resolving in favor of the American attitude.” At this conference also, the President, through his spokesman, became a book reviewer. Mr. Coolidge passed critical judgment on the volume entitled “The French Debt Problem” published by the Institute of Economics. This study is a painstaking cooperative effort by American economists to estimate France’s capacity to meet her foreign obligations, and may be properly criticised only by a detailed analysis of its statistical material or the conclusions drawn therefrom. Yet Mr. Coolidge advised the country to pay no attention to the argument of the book because its estimates were not altogether consistent with the demands of the Debt Funding Commission. This, I imagine, represents the high water mark of presidential omniscience and the apotheosis of the irresponsible presumption of his “spokesman.”

To him and the exploitation that he symbolizes is due, I think, an amazing uncertainty as to the quality of American executives. Mr. Coolidge, for example, enjoys a greater popular support than has been given any previous President. The mass of the people have a quiet confidence in him, but his record with Congress is one of almost complete failure. Congress, indeed, has nearly a perfect record in disregarding the President’s recommendations. The Senate repeatedly refused to consider American entrance into the World Court, and when the debate finally began, paid no attention to the executive’s wishes. Mr. Coolidge’s agricultural recommendations were almost completely ignored; the bonus for ex-soldiers was passed over his veto, when it seemed incredible that a President could not have changed the few votes necessary to have the measure fail; the Japanese exclusion clause was put in the Immigration Act against his vigorous protest; his appointments have been rejected, and for the first time in sixty years the President has had to submit to a senatorial veto on the choice of his Cabinet. Against the wishes of the President, Congress raised the salary of its own members. The record really is almost unparalleled, and yet, as I say, it seems to have affected slightly if at all the hold that Mr. Coolidge has on the country. Indeed, he seems to have gained strength from his Congressional defeats, for the newspapers have published millions of words picturing him as the strong silent man about to veto the immigration bill, or about to show firmness in exerting pressure to have the World Court proposal considered. To be sure, this firmness was always pictured in advance of the event, but the country has apparently been unable to contrast lack of performance with the glorious promises. It may be that Mr. Coolidge is one of the strongest Presidents the country has ever had, but the idea of him in this role is based not upon any specific achievements, but upon a roseate picture that newspaper correspondents have drawn of their interviews with the White House “spokesman.”

Such a newspaper conception of the chief executive is possible because in the United States the President is an important person apart from Congress. The British Prime Minister, on the other hand, is interesting only in so far as he retains office, or as he increases or decreases his chance of doing this, and here the House of Commons is a deciding factor. The outcome is determined in day by day contacts between Cabinet and Commons, and myths about English ministers cannot long perdure. They vanish before the reality of the Minister’s demeanor and skill in dealing with Parliament. A House of Commons, for example, would have a pretty accurate estimate of the ability of its Attorney General within the first fortnight of a session, and there could be no sudden disclosure after some months in a hearing before a legislative committee that economy of words and a magnificent physique did not mean legal ability—as the country had been led to believe—but only concealed complete ignorance of what the Department of Justice had done. Such a partial picture may frequently be seen in the United States, for the President is never viewed in mental deshabille and he and his advisers never come to grips with their opponents. The country may know that certain presidential recommendations have been disregarded, but these defeats can be easily counteracted by favorable reports putting the President before the country as an exponent of private economy or conservatism in dress.

The United States, as I have said, experiments with the devices of democracy. Our newest experiment is with the White House “spokesman”—an extra-constitutional person who increases both presidential influence and irresponsibility. From the standpoint of the executive, he is, therefore, a desirable fiction, and he will be retained until he loses popularity through a realization of his achievements in making popular government unpopular.


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