Presidents, with the exception of George Washington, never found much joy with the media, although Donald Trump is the first to use the scarily freighted words "enemies of the people." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), twice a presidential candidate, declared that this is "how dictators get started" — consolidating power by destroying confidence in institutions like a free press and the courts.
"When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press," McCain said. Tyrants like Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong used the "enemies" term for opponents who needed to be eradicated for the good of the state. Death, gulags or asylum followed. McCain soon walked back his words, saying he wasn't necessarily saying that Trump sought dictatorial powers.
That is a popular narrative in the United States and abroad among people who hear the distant thunder of authoritarianism in Trump's histrionics, fear-mongering and spurious charges. Myself, I think it's all overwrought. Far from gaining dictatorial power, he will be brought down by incompetence, ignorance and vainglory. His war on the media is only a manifestation of it.
No president was ever so obsessed with the media, and Donald Trump is a media-made phenomenon. From the time his rich father gave him a leg up in the New York real estate market, he pursued publicity and aggrandizement with passion. All publicity, including failed marriages and serial infidelities, was good. Scornful articles about his deceits still enlarged his celebrity status. His offices in Trump Tower were adorned with framed magazine and tabloid covers with his likeness. He planted pieces in men's magazines like GQ, which in 2000 featured his naked girlfriend Melania on its cover under the blurb "Sex at 3000ft, Melania Knauss earns her air miles" and an inside layout of the future first lady posing in various stages of nudity, including one shot lying naked but jeweled on a fur-draped bed handcuffed to Trump's gold-plated briefcase inside his elegantly outfitted 747 at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Media celebrity landed him the gig hosting a TV reality show and a political career.
But the national media that track politicians is less obsequious, as so many before Trump learned. Reporters look for weakness, conflicts of interest, deception and error, and their papers and networks feast upon them. It maddened presidents from John Adams on. The second president passed the Sedition Act and filed criminal charges against editors and writers who lampooned him. Thomas Jefferson, who followed him, pardoned the editors. Jefferson wrote lofty defenses of a free press as democracy's guardian, but while president he also hated it, at least the Federalist press.
"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," Jefferson wrote a friend. Federalist newspapers accused him of being an atheist and a Francophile, of fathering children with his slave mistress (true, it turned out), and of profligacy in buying the Louisiana Territory. He tried to get his attorney general to prosecute unkind editors.
Modern presidents have found the press as troublesome as Trump does, but mostly they have taken it in stride. Richard Nixon kept TV and newspaper people on his enemies list and tried to manipulate coverage through intimidation. But, like Trump's, his attacks on the media struck a chord with many voters.
"The press is your enemy," Nixon told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a recorded Oval Office conversation in his first term. "Enemies. Understand that? ... . Now, never act that way ... . Give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you're trying to be helpful. But don't help the bastards. Ever! Because they're trying to stick the knife right in our groin."
No one before Trump felt more tormented by the press than Bill Clinton, unless it was his wife. I was lying in a hospital bed at home Jan. 3, 1995, recovering from heart surgery, when the president called. He was in town for the dedication of a Sherwood school named for him. His presidency was in shambles. Republicans had killed his health reforms, swamped him in the midterm elections and taken over Congress. Whitewater investigations were raising one misbegotten "scandal" after another and his approval ratings were at rock bottom.
After offering sympathy for my condition, he launched into a 45-minute soliloquy on his own troubles, all more or less caused, he thought, by the Washington press corps, particularly The New York Times and Washington Post, which searched for the tiniest oddity in his or his wife's past or White House operations. He and Hillary had pondered what brought the unholy alliance between the press and the Republican Congress, and he had some theories. When he was governor, these telephone calls were profanity-laced tirades about my own dishonest editorial criticisms of his stewardship, and I was grateful not to be abused in my current condition.
What Clinton and the other poor saps like George W. Bush, Gerald Ford and even Nixon didn't realize and Trump did was that there was political gold in making the media the people's enemy and not just yours.
Ineptitude and greed will still take their course.