Presidency and the Press: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Encyclopedia of American Journalism

“To think that an old general should come to this,” Dwight
Eisenhower (1953–1961) said, wearily laughing and wiping
his brow. He had just completed cutting campaign commercials under the direction of Rosser Reeves, “the dark prince
of hard sell,” who had sold Anacin to millions of Americans
by promising in early television ads “fast, fast relief.”
Eisenhower’s 1952 Republican Party candidacy for the
presidency would be the first pitched for television. Seventy million of America’s 160 million citizens had watched
nominating convention coverage earlier that summer, and
the Republican National Committee had assigned Reeves
from the Ted Bates Agency the job of selling their candidate. Bates heard Eisenhower’s stump speech in Philadelphia and thought it “a disaster. He was all over the map. He
said sixteen different things. No one could remember what
he was talking about.” Bates narrowed Eisenhower’s focus
to “corruption in Washington, lower taxes, and the need for
change.” Eisenhower carried these campaign themes into
his “Eisenhower Answers America” ads and followed them up on the campaign trail with the slogan “I Like Ike” to the
strains of an Irving Berlin tune written especially for the
general. Adlai Stevenson, his Democratic opponent, never
had a chance. Eisenhower, a popular war hero, carried 39
states, won 422 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89 and gained
34 million votes to Stevenson’s 27 million. Eisenhower
became the nation’s first Republican president since the
Great Depression.
Eisenhower’s nationally telecast inaugural address on
January 20, 1953, attempted to rally popular support for
his Cold War policy aimed at the quarantine of Communism. “We sense with all our faculties,” he told the country,
“that the forces of good and evil are massed and opposed
as rarely before in history.” Eisenhower’s television advisor was the Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and his
press secretary was James C. Hagerty, for many years
the chief political correspondent at the New York Times.
Together they worked with Eisenhower in achieving a naturalness in tone and content that, in Eisenhower’s words,
“will sound good to the fellow digging ditches in Kansas.”
Eisenhower’s inaugural address showed this approach
in action. “We have grown in power and responsibility,”
Eisenhower told his fellow citizens. “We have the power
to erase human life from this planet. Freedom is pitted
against slavery, brightness against the dark. And we will
defend freedom.”
While Eisenhower enjoyed for the most part a positive
press and a good economy during his presidency, he had
his early skeptics. His cabinet was derisively described as
“eight millionaires and a plumber.” Eisenhower was often
portrayed as good-natured, but bland, well-intentioned, but
not always in command of the facts. Part of Eisenhower’s
evasiveness in televised press conferences was intentional.
He wanted to appear “non-partisan” and refused to “engage
in personalities,” often making him appear ambivalent
on policy issues. He would profess ignorance of issues he
“didn’t want to talk about.” As Hagerty prepped the president for a March 23, 1955, press conference on whether he
would use nuclear weapons to prevent the Chinese from
attacking the nationalist Chinese on the island of Formosa,
Eisenhower told him, “Don’t worry, Jim. If that question
comes up, I’ll confuse them.” Hagerty was a worrier. “One
day I sat thinking, almost in despair,” Hagerty remembered.
“A hand fell on my shoulder and a voice said reassuringly,
‘cheer up, things could get worse.’ So I cheered up, and sure
enough, things got worse.” Hagerty would hold bad news
to Saturday or Sunday, when the stories figured to get less
attention in the press. Good news was released before two
o’clock in the East to be sure to lead the nightly network
Hagerty won wide admiration of White House correspondents for his thoroughness, honesty, and access to the
president. While campaigning for president in Detroit on
October 24, 1952, Eisenhower told reporters if elected “I
shall go to Korea” in an effort to end a bloody stalemate
involving U.S. forces on the peninsula. As president-elect,
Eisenhower kept his word, and on December 4, Hagerty
arranged photo-opportunities of Eisenhower standing in a
chow line with members of the Third U.S. Army Infantry
as well as touring installations of the Second U.S. Infantry
Division at the fighting front. On July 27, 1953, Eisenhower
brokered a cease-fire to end the Korean War. When Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in Denver in 1955, Hagerty
rushed to the president’s bedside on September 25, the day
after. Presidents Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding went to great lengths to
hide their medical problems from the public. Hagerty met
with Eisenhower’s medical team and then opened the president’s oxygen tent to ask him how much he should tell the
public in a press conference. It was agreed that the president’s personal physician, Dr. Paul Dudley White, would
take reporters questions. Some criticized White and Hagertyr for their candor. Their openness helped diffuse charges
Eisenhower would not be well enough to seek a second
Eisenhower’s press conferences were attended by 160 or
so reporters who regularly covered the White House. Chief
among them were Merriman Smith, the veteran United
Press correspondent, whose assigned role was to begin and
end each meeting with the reporters. Martin Arrowsmith
represented Associated Press and Robert Clark reported
for the International News Service. Hagerty was sensitive
that wire services reporters were always on deadline and
went out of his way to background them on breaking stories. Reporters for major newspaper chains received similar treatment. These included Robert Richards with Copley
Newspapers and Kenneth Scheibe at Gannett. Eisenhower’s action to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas,
in September 1957 to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s
ordered desegregation of the nation’s schools was praised
by Ethel Payne, who covered the White House for the Chicago Daily Defender, a leading African American newspaper. Eisenhower returned to the Oval Office from a vacation
in Rhode Island to address the nation on television about
his controversial decision. The speech was carefully cast
to emphasize the president could not stand by and permit
“demagogic extremists and disorderly mobs” from preventing nine African Americans from attending Central High
School. Eisenhower’s actions and speech helped to diffuse
the crisis in Little Rock.
Eisenhower won forty-one states and 58 percent of the
vote in his re-election landslide. His second term saw an
increase in coverage by the three main television networks
and their correspondents, Joseph Harsch at NBC, Martin
Agronsky at ABC, and Charles von Fremd at CBS. Eisenhower presided over the creation of the Interstate Highway
System during his second term. In 1919 as a Lieutenant
Colonel Eisenhower had been involved in supervising the
Transcontinental Convoy. During the Cold War he successfully argued for an integrated “communication and
transportation system. Without them, we would be a mere
alliance of separate parts.” Eisenhower also went out of
his way to defend CBS correspondent Edward R. Morrow, whose patriotism was questioned after his criticism of
Red-hunting Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ike had
known Morrow since their days in London during World War II, he told reporters, and had “always thought of him
as a good friend.” White House memos and staff meetings
show Eisenhower repeatedly urged Republican lawmakers to rein in McCarthy, warning them “he’s ambitious. He
wants to be president. And he’s the last guy in the world
who’ll ever get there.” On December 2, 1954, McCarthy
was censured by the Senate.
After the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik on
October 4, 1957, putting the first artificial satellite in orbit,
Democrats began to criticize Eisenhower for the nation’s
“missile gap.” The Navy’s Project Vanguard proved an
embarrassing failure, but by January 1958 Eisenhower
pointed with pride to the Army’s successful Jupiter Project and its launch of Explorer I. On July 29, 1958 Eisenhower announced the creation of the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration to oversee the nation’s infant
space program. Eisenhower would claim in May 1960 that
a NASA “weather research aircraft” had accidentally wandered into Soviet air space. It was a lie. On May 7, Soviet
premier Nikita Khrushchev showed reporters the downed
pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been captured while
on a spy mission to photograph Soviet missile installations.
Powers’ photographs and plane were also recovered. “I
would like to resign,” Ike said privately offering Hagerty a
grim joke. Publicly, the president never apologized for the
incident, and it led the theatrical Khrushchev to bolt their
Super Power summit in Paris.
Eisenhower’s personal popularity remained high throughout his two terms in office. On January 17, 1961, three days
before the end of his presidency he spoke to the nation one
last time on television as their commander in chief. His
final speech was modeled on George Washington’s farewell
address to the nation. In it, Eisenhower assured the country
that “America today is the strongest, the most influential,
and most productive nation in the world.” It faced “a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in methods.” Then he warned
of the “grave implications” and “unwarranted influence of
a military-industrial complex” that potentially threatened
“our liberties and democratic processes.” The final theme
of his presidency was the care with which the United States
should exercise its power in a troubled nuclear world. “The
easiest thing to do with great power is to abuse it,” Eisenhower said. An informed citizenry, he was confident, would
see that it did not.
Further Reading
Allen, Craig. Eisenhower and the Mass Media: Peace, Prosperity and Prime Time TV. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina, 1993.
Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower, 2 vols. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1983–1984.
Diamond, Edwin. The Spot: The Rise of Political Advertising on
Television. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.
Greenstein, Fred. The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as
Leader. New York : Basic Books, 1982.
Henderson, Philip G. Managing the Presidency: The Eisenhower
Legacy. New York: Westview Press, 1988.
Melanson, Richard A., and David Mayer. Reevaluating Eisenhower. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Bruce J. Evensen