Joe Biden was hardly the first president to call a reporter a “stupid SOB.” Though doing it on television (and in the East Room of the White House, no less) sets him apart from his predecessors.
The relationship between chief executive and the presidential press corps has been rocky since the republic’s founding. Think the Hatfield and McCoy spat was nasty? It was child’s play compared to history’s hottest feud, the perpetual squabble between the president and the press.
It started with Washington. We tend to think of George Washington as a man made of marble, a figure so glorified he almost walked on water. But you wouldn’t have felt that way after reading news articles written during his presidency.
Though coverage was laudatory at first, attacks grew bolder as partisan political differences emerged. By his second term, they escalated to the point where his personal character and even his military reputation were questioned. It was among the reasons why George was ready to call it quits after two rounds on the job.
That was a day at the beach compared to what John Adams got. The assaults were savagely personal on him. The Philadelphia Aurora, an influential paper of its day, even went so far as to refer to “old, querulous, bald blind, crippled, toothless Adams.” Little wonder that he supported the highly controversial Sedition Act of 1798, which led to The Aurora’s editor being tossed in prison.
Andrew Jackson and the press mixed it up with the ferocity of a Saturday night brawl in a biker bar. Though Old Hickory was savvy enough to use a member of the Fourth Estate in his war against it. One of his closest advisors was Amos Kendall, a journalist who had once supported Jackson’s arch-rival Henry Clay.
Likewise, Abraham Lincoln had several journalists in his Brain Trust to assist him with the press. He also had an unusually powerful weapon at his disposal. With a Civil War raging, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, meaning the government could bypass the usual legal channels to arrest and hold suspects. Consider what came next.
On May 18, 1864, The New York World and Journal of Commerce printed a story claiming Lincoln had proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, was calling for 400,000 additional troops for the Union army, and was ready to launch a new draft to get them. It was all totally bogus. Talk about “fake news.”
Later that day, Lincoln issued “Executive Order—Arrest and Imprisonment of Irresponsible Newspaper Reporters and Editors.” Abe wasn’t fooling around.
Teddy Roosevelt grew so livid over a Boston paper’s story alleging his young children had traumatized a live turkey by chasing it around the White House lawn he ordered federal agencies to stop communicating with that news outlet.
His cousin Franklin Roosevelt later was so outraged over John O’Donnell’s reporting during World War II he mailed the journalist an Iron Cross, the symbol of German militarism, in the midst of fighting Nazi Germany. Ouch!
Richard Nixon even had an infamous “enemies list” (though the memo containing it actually had the more benign title of “Opponents List”) that included journalists and columnists Edwin Guthman, Daniel Schorr, and Mary Magory.
Perhaps the granddaddy of them all was Donald Trump, who gleefully excoriated the news media every chance he got, and which the media responded to with the outrage of streetwalker whose virtue has been called into question.
It is ironic that these two institutions which are, for all practical purposes, joined at the hip are so mistrustful of one another. And yet a touch of adversarial skepticism is not a bad thing. It prevents the press from becoming the administration’s propaganda ministry on the one hand while keeping the president personally accountable to we, the people, on the other.
The trick, however, is the same as in all areas of life: Finding the perfect balance between being adversarial without becoming antagonistic.
So, while Biden’s badmouthing was far from unusual for a president, expressing it publicly was a break with precedent and a bad breach of presidential decorum.
Biden would do well to follow Fake Newsman Ron Burgandy’s paraphrased advice and “Stay classy, Joe Biden.”