Inventing the Media Presidency: Public Opinion and Publicity in the Early Twentieth Century
The Progressive Era reforms brought about the modern national administrative state, situating more power and authority in the federal government and the executive branch. In doing so, these changes also made, as Stephen Skowronek argues, “public opinion an integral part of the incumbent’s job description, recasting the authority of the office.”1 In fact, “public opinion went hand in hand with the Progressive framework.” Public opinion cut into the power of urban machines and party bosses, who for decades had argued that they represented the interests of their loyal partisan voters. But, during the turn of the twentieth century, the place of the printed media and new technologies like motion pictures and radio grew in American politics. As more and more Americans began to consume media, innovative politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover constructed opportunities to connect directly to voters, rather than merely relying on party machines to communicate with the public.
As David Greenberg explains in Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt “launched an Age of Publicity, in which presidents and other politicians championed the disclosure of their activities as a way to promote themselves and their goals.”2 Roosevelt and his successors cast the presidency into the national media limelight, each using the power of his personality—carefully crafted by press aides and with the use of new technology—to promote specific policies.
As the administrative state grew in the lives of individuals, so too did the place of the president in the public imagination. Woodrow Wilson built on the inroads Roosevelt laid by articulating what Greenberg describes as “a belief common among progressives that broad-minded leaders could, though their leadership of public opinion, forge an enlightened citizenry and a stronger democracy.” By World War I, Wilson’s efforts culminated in the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which blurred the line between publicity and propaganda. But, as the CPI showed the effectiveness of media messaging it also generated a “popular cynicism toward presidential efforts to guide public opinion.”3
This section examines the creation of a public presidency, in which presidents and presidential aspirants became media leaders—both courting public opinion and relying on new communication tactics to shape public opinion. Building on new research in American political history that brings in advertising, public relations, and the rise of consumer culture during the 1920s, this section encourages students to reconsider the ways in which presidents responded to technological change and industrialization by establishing new institutions, recruiting alternative advisors, and reconfiguring their relationship to voters. The Age of Publicity was invented and contested all along the way.
Cultivating Public Opinion:
The prominent philosopher John Dewey wrote of Theodore Roosevelt, “One cannot think of him except as part of the public scene, performing on a public stage.”4 Another contemporary, Henry Stoddard, agreed. “Yes—it is true that TR liked the centre of the stage, loved it in fact.” But, as Stoddard noted, “when he sought it, he always had something to say or do that made the stage the appropriate place for him.”5 Theodore Roosevelt ushered in dramatic social reforms by using publicity as a tool. TR made himself the star of the political arena through both legislation and the media. Both efforts reinforced one another. He astutely included journalists on his military campaign in Cuba—a tactic that brought publicity rewards when “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” became a symbol of American military triumph during the Spanish-American war. Roosevelt then translated his wartime celebrity into political power. Winning first the New York governorship, Roosevelt then became a celebrated vice-president under William McKinley before the assassin’s bullet gave the Oval Office to the youngest president in history.
Roosevelt embodied and propelled broader changes in American politics and culture, especially the shift from a culture of character to one of personality.6 He negotiated economic reforms to regulate monopolies, protect consumers, and began shifting political authority from the party bosses in urban centers to the people—as defined by journalists, newspaper editors, and interest groups. Like other progressives, TR saw media as the way reformers would bypass the corrupt machines and connect directly to the people.
- David Greenberg, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Image of Presidential Activism,” Social Research, Vol. 78, No. 4, Winter 2011, pp. 1057-1088.
- In his Autobiography, (1913), Theodore Roosevelt outlines his belief that the president should play an active role in advocating for the people and promoting social change. http://www.bartleby.com/55/10.html
- Senator Benjamin Tillman’s Testimony, Congressional Record, January 17, 1906, especially pages 1179–1181.
- Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Edgar S. Wilson, October 29, 1903.
- The Yellow Press (political cartoon), October 12, 1910.
- Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Ben B. Lindsey, May 19, 1911.
- Letter from Jacob A. Riis to Theodore Roosevelt, 1912.
- What is the “stewardship theory,” that Roosevelt outlines? How does this make publicity central to presidential success?
- In what ways does Roosevelt remake the image of the presidency in the public eye? What tools does he use to do this?
- What does the criticism waged by figures like Benjamin Tillman illuminate about fears of Roosevelt’s press operations? How does this reflect broader cultural concerns about political and cultural changes brought about by urbanization and industrialization, as well as fears about the implications of the “cult of personality”?
The Roosevelt Legacy: Public Opinion, Interest Groups, and New Applications of the Public Presidency
When Roosevelt, as president, faced national problems, he turned to new communication strategies to persuade the public about his policies and even his qualifications for office. But, while he may have invented the media presidency, his successors reshaped it. From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, presidential administrations experimented with new practices that restyled electoral strategies while also deepening fears of media manipulation. This research activity allows students to examine ways in which Roosevelt’s successors expanded upon TR’s use of the “bully pulpit” and deployed new media technology to shape public opinion for their candidacies and policies. Students will also look at the criticism and controversy presidents faced amid rising concern about the negative influence of public relations professionals in American political life.
Activity assignment: Examine Roosevelt’s innovations in new media technology with the moving image. http://www.loc.gov/collection/theodore-roosevelt-films/about-this-collection/
After reviewing Roosevelt’s media productions, have small groups investigate different presidential applications of Roosevelt’s publicity techniques. Each group will present how Roosevelt’s successors built upon, expanded, or reinvented the media presidency.
Group1: WWI Propaganda
Woodrow Wilson took the management of information to a new level during WWI with the formation of the Committee on Public Information.
Click the images below to see larger versions.
Group 2: “Round Coolidge Corner, 1924”
Calvin Coolidge’s campaign adviser in 1924, advertising executive Bruce Barton, deployed print and video tools of persuasion to promote the president’s reelection. Believing the election hinged on Coolidge’s personality, Barton used this film to educate voters about the incumbent.
Group 3: The 1928 Election: Opportunities and Limits of Motion Pictures
William Irwin, a former member of the Committee on Public Information, worked with President Herbert Hoover on his 1928 campaign. A former muckraker, Irwin wrote and produced the campaign film, Master of Emergencies. This film and correspondence between Hoover and Irwin demonstrates the emotional appeal of using new media as well as Hoover’s reluctance to do so.
Citation: Irwin to Hoover, September 13, 1928, Irwin Folder, box 32, Campaign and transition files, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
Group 4: Going Public: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hollywood
Hollywood studio executive Jack Warner, of Warner Bros., eagerly cultivated a relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Firmly believing in the New York governor’s promise of a New Deal, Warner supported the Democratic candidate’s election in 1932, and then continued to volunteer his time and studio’s resources to support the New Deal agenda. In 1933, Warner produced this film in support of the president’s controversial National Industrial Recovery Act.
- ↑ Stephen Skowronek, “The Unsettled State of Presidential History,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce Schulman, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 19.
- ↑ David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 11.
- ↑ Greenberg, 11.
- ↑ Quoted in Greenberg, Republic of Spin, 16.
- ↑ Greenberg, 19.
- ↑ Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973, 1984).