Presidents only gradually responded to the call and needs of the media. Their attentiveness has been in proportion to the growth of democracy which has more and more made it de rigueur for the chief executive to seem to be in tune with the voice of the people. But from early on, the press and the presidents have had a love-hate relationship. George Washington had considered himself a unifying force for the new nation, seeking to provide a standard "to which the wise and honest may repair." The incendiary partisan newspapers of the day irked him, because they reflected the factionalism he despised. He canceled his subscription to thirty of them when he left his Virginia estate at Mount Vernon for his inauguration, although he was reading one on the last day of his life. On a tour of the South in 1791 he was followed about by reporters, experiencing what every president since then has known: an unquenchable limelight. In 1798 John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts designed to silence his critics. And Jefferson, who spoke feelingly of the importance of freedom of the press, nevertheless could declare: "Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds." Although Madison was the author of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, he felt wounded by the press's carping about his conduct of the War of 1812. During the Mexican War, Polk regarded newspaper criticism as nothing less than treason. So it has been as presidents and writers for the media wrestle with each other like scorpions in a bottle.
Lincoln owed his nomination to two editors of Chicago newspapers; yet he punished editors of Confederate sheets. His relations with the press were often stormy, and cartoonists pilloried him relentlessly. Ulysses S. Grant, seared by the revelation of corruption in his administration, felt obliged to say as he closed his second inaugural address that from the time of his first campaign in 1868 he had "been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history."
Grover Cleveland, a secretive man, was openly hostile to the press, too. In his day newsmen did not even have working space in the White House. They were forced to stand outside in all kinds of weather and hope to buttonhole visitors as they entered or departed. When a journalist asked the president to appoint a new secretary who might be good to news-papermen, Cleveland responded: "I have a notion to appoint a man who will be good to me." Cleveland remains the only president who refused to attend the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, the insider association of Washington journalists founded in 1885 where the president and the press attired in white tie and tails "singe but do not burn" each other with more or less good-natured sallies. His successor, William McKinley (1897–1901), had the same wariness toward the press. Talking to journalists a few days after having spoken before a gathering of patent experts, he said wryly: "This is the second time that I have been called upon this week to address a congress of inventors."
Theodore Roosevelt opened yet another new day in the history of the presidency, one in which the president is the head of his party as well as chief executive. TR had a press secretary and one of the president's closest friends was the Kansas newspaperman William Allen White. Roosevelt had learned early that self-promotion was an indispensable tool of the modern White House. He often talked to newspaper-men while he was being shaved in the morning. Woodrow Wilson held the first press conference as it is known today—eleven days after his inauguration in 1913. Suggested by his press secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, it was attended by about 125 newsmen. Previously only favored journalists had had access to the president. The questions were submitted in writing. Wilson himself chose when to hold these sessions and would not yield to a demand for them, even in the unlikely event that journalists should make such a call. Still, like his predecessors, Wilson was convinced that newspaper reports were not trustworthy.
Despite all, the public continued to rely on newspapers for judging their leaders. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune in Lincoln's day, was nominated by the Democrats and the Liberal Republicans in 1872 and received substantial support in the election. In 1920 the two major-party candidates were active newsmen: Warren G. Harding for the Republicans was the editor and publisher of the Marion (Ohio) Star, and James M. Cox for the Democrats, also from Ohio, was the editor and publisher of the Dayton Daily News.
Presidential suspicion of journalists persisted none the less: Herbert Hoover, for instance, continued to hold press conferences in what was then the usual way, taking questions submitted in writing. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, press conferences became less formal as journalists gathered around the president who was seated at his desk. At ease with the press (he maintained he was a journalist himself, claiming the status by virtue of having served on the Harvard Crimson as an undergraduate), he often teased his interrogators. And those whom he regarded as wrongheaded or otherwise irritating to him he consigned to his "Dunce Club." Even so, it was still forbidden to quote the president directly. Blessed with a mellifluous speaking voice, FDR gave "fire-side" chats on the radio, which was becoming an everyday appliance in millions of homes. These talks are remembered today as a hallmark of his administration, allowing him to go over the heads of the print media and giving him unique access to the public mind.
Harry Truman, considerably less effective as a public speaker than his predecessor, was certain that newspaper editorials did not reflect popular opinion. He could feel vindicated when, despite almost universal predictions by the media that his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, would win the presidency in 1948, he was elected in his own right to a term in the White House. Dwight D. Eisenhower allowed his words at press conferences to be quoted directly and tape recordings of them to be released. On 19 January 1955 his news conference was recorded on television and on movie film—a ground-breaking event. Ike began by saying: "Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence." On the fortieth anniversary of Eisenhower's graduation from West Point, his address to the class of 1955 was tele-cast in color—another first for a president.
The presidential debates between competing candidates beginning in 1960, when Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy went toe to toe, inaugurated a now expected feature of campaigns. The electorate wants to judge not only what the opponents are espousing but also their demeanor and facial expressions. When Kennedy became president, his ready wit made some of his press conferences entertaining as well as informative, and he scheduled them for evening hours. As talk radio and talk television began to fill the airwaves, candidates and presidents took advantage of the opportunities to deliver their message.