When Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, a
White House system of communication was already well in
place. After twelve years as president, FDR and his administration had made many informational changes that were continued by Harry S Truman and subsequent presidents: a
designated press secretary, press conferences on a regular
basis, a concerted use all the available media technologies,
and an overall administrative system of war communications (World War II not yet officially over). By the end
of 1945, the Office of Censorship and the Office of War
Information were disbanded, although the openness and
availability of documents that had characterized the New
Deal would not return to the executive branch.
Press Secretary Stephen T. (“Steve”) Early announced
Roosevelt’s death. Roosevelt had established that his press
secretary would have access to the president, an understanding of the issues, a mastery of details, and an astute ability
to get along with journalists. Previous presidents had had
secretaries who had been former journalists and assisted
in a president’s press relations, but FDR’s first designated
press secretary had a title and duties that meant a singular
devotion to news.
No one matched Roosevelt in the number of press conferences, almost one thousand, or more than one a week up
into his fourth term in office. He found the meetings useful.
They were an efficient way to get information out and keep
in touch with the public, and also a means to influence the
messages about his administration and garner enough public support to pass his programs. By having regular press
conferences, the Roosevelt created an expectation of a regular flow of news. And, when he did not meet with the press,
the White House correspondents loudly complained. The
meetings were mutually useful. With so much news happening, especially during the New Deal and World War II,
Washington journalists needed an efficient way to gather
news. Roosevelt gave out what he considered to be necessary information, defined the issues, and set the agenda.
Roosevelt had the knowledge and the ability to think
quickly under pressure, and unless he was ill, he enjoyed
the exchange. With Roosevelt’s personality and confidence,
he could handle most questions, and still keep the correspondents at bay as subordinates. Roosevelt left a legacy
not only for his news management at press meetings, but for
following the results. One of his secretaries put together a
type of internal daily news intelligence report. That type of
summation has continued through today and now includes
a daily news synopses of the cable, network television, and
radio coverage of presidential and administration news and
editorials along with editorial cartoons.
Both Roosevelt and Truman used public opinion polling.
During Roosevelt’s first two presidential election campaigns
in 1932 and 1936, polling was in its infancy but by 1940, the
he was testing the public’s views about the war. Previously,
the American newspapers and their editorials had been a
major gauge of public viewpoints. During Roosevelt’s war
years, Gallup polls became the basis for news stories and
regular columns. White House communications after Roosevelt increasingly relied on opinion polling with full-time
polling advisers to test reactions to policies and legislation
before Congress, and even to test potential themes in State
of the Union messages.
The White House press bureaucracy, existing prior to
Roosevelt, grew with the addition to the many New Deal
agencies and their allotted funds for publicity. Now, as an
accepted part of government, information officers are in
every department and agency to write speeches, meet with
journalists, make news releases, arrange interviews, and
hold press conferences and briefings, much as was done
during the New Deal years. Such a news bureaucracy has
extended to Congress, the courts, and even to state and local
governments. Overall coordination of agency, department
and White House information began with Roosevelt during his second term. Such efforts were more refined during
World War II when information could become yet another
weapon. Such formalized domestic information offices continued to grow with subsequent presidents from Richard M.
Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy to George W.
Bush’s Office of Public Liaison.
The New Deal era was open and flexible, allowing
for disagreements among officials to be played out in the
media. Yet, once the country was in the war, the president
and the rest of the federal government became secretive,
focused to the point of intractable, and speaking in one
voice to the world. When Roosevelt closed off the information access during World War II, so too did the rest of the
executive branch. Such secrecy continued to some extent
when Harry Truman became president, then opened up at
the end of World War II, only to return during the Cold War
and the Korea War.
Immediately after the declaration of war, Roosevelt put
into place two information offices: the Office of War Information and the Office of Censorship, both moribund by the
end of 1945. Yet, these two offices begot other information agencies that have continued up to today. The United
States Information Agency and the Voice of America hired
many of the seasoned World War II workers as did the State
Department and later the Central Intelligence Agency. More
and more presidents want coordinated domestic information
and an international and foreign news synchronization.
Roosevelt relied upon all the media of his day to the
point of technological artistry. FDR’s images appeared in
not just photographs and picture magazines, but also in
newsreels. Roosevelt’s press secretary gave the access, set
the numbers, even the distance, and suggested photography
and newsreel shots and backdrops. A consistent taboo was
the depiction of Roosevelt’s legs and reminders of his polio
Roosevelt’s word images came in the form of his radio
addresses and especially those memorable fireside chats.
Roosevelt used common words, giving an air of informality
to his presentations. The fireside chats were casual, short,
and immensely popular. FDR’s press secretary dribbled
the news and hinted at topics to build an audience from
the print media. When these chats began during the Great
Depression, Roosevelt’s fresh technique and voice inspired
confidence and hope.
Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman struggled to maintain good relations with the press. To many reporters, Truman was the “accidental president” and seemed “a small
man in a big chair” following the death in 1945 of Roosevelt, who had been elected four times to the presidency.
Truman insisted that the emerging Cold War required the
same bipartisan support from the press that had been shown
during World War II. The press, however, was eager to reestablish an adversarial role with the president following its
general compliance in reporting war news. Jack Bell of the
Associated Press thought Roosevelt genuinely enjoyed the
give and take of his press conferences but Truman seemed
“extremely hostile to his critics.” Richard L. Strout of the
Christian Science Monitor felt Truman lacked Roosevelt’s
interpersonal skills. As a result, he was “decried and minimized” by many White House reporters. Raymond Brandt
of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thought the general consensus was “that Truman wasn’t up to the job.”
There was widespread agreement in the press corps
that Truman’s problems were both stylistic and substantive. Arthur Krock, the chief Washington correspondent
for the New York Times, observed that Roosevelt appeared
to open his mind to reporters, creating the impression that
he “wanted the news of his administration portrayed in the
most favorable possible light.” Truman’s attitude, instead,
seemed to be “take it or leave it.” Robert Walsh, a reporter
for the Washington Star, saw the same attitude and believed
it “hurt Truman’s image” in the press and with the nation.
Another veteran White House reporter saw Truman as “a
backwoods preacher laying down the law.” This appearance
of “arrogance and obstinacy alienated both the Congress
and the public.” C.L. Sulzberger, the chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times found Truman “very sincere and quite self-confident” with an unfortunate “rural
knowledge of the world.”
White House observers did not consider Truman well
served by his press secretary, boyhood friend Charles Ross,
who had won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief
for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ross appears to have shared
Truman’s distrust of some reporters and his impatience
with members of the press. Carroll Kenworthy, editor of
the foreign department at United Press, noted that Ross had
worked as a news analyst and did not properly appreciate
the deadline pressures that drove the wire service reporters
and big city dailies. As a result, Truman “very rarely used
the news conference as much of a tool to get his ideas across
to the public or the Congress.” Syndicated columnist Joseph
Alsop thought the poor performance of Truman and his
press team contributed to the impression they were “overwhelmed by the vast problems of the post-war world.” At
a time of growing instability in that world, many reporters
came to feel that Truman and his press handlers were dangerously out of their depth. Robert Riggs, chief Washington
correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal, said the
general impression among reporters was that “Truman was
not always in command.”
Truman’s reputation would be rehabilitated by historians
who noted his upset election victory in 1948 and the strength
of his Truman Doctrine, which prevented the spread of
communism in Europe, and Marshall Plan, which succeeded in rebuilding Europe after the war. George Elsey, an
assistant to the president and one of Truman’s speech writers, believed Truman saw his job as making tough decisions
and “leading public opinion rather than waiting for public
opinion to tell him what to do.” After he left office, Truman
described the president’s role as that of “a glorified public
relations man” whose principal power lies in persuasion. He
was annoyed by members of the “sabotage press” who had
“failed to accurately portray our policies to the American
people,” and “ivory tower potentates,” columnists such as
Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, Joseph and Stewart Alsop,
and Walter Lippmann, who were more interested in circulation, Truman believed, than “serving the national interest.”
Krock knew Truman better than most White House reporters and thought “his character curiously combined pettiness
with greatness.” Truman could make momentous decisions
“with an iron backbone,” Krock was convinced, “but did
not suffer his critics well.”
Further Reading
Cantril, Hadley, ed. Public Opinion, 1935–1946. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1951.
Leuchtenburg, William E.. In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry
Truman to Ronald Reagan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 1983.
Papers of Harry S. Truman. Oral History Interviews. Press Conference File. Press Secretary Files. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. Independence, Missouri.
Phillips, Cabell et al., eds. Dateline: Washington, the Story of
National Affairs Journalism in the Life and Times of the
National Press Club. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949.
Truman, Harry S. Years of Trial and Hope. Garden City,NY:
Doubleday, 1956.
Winfield, Betty Houchin. FDR and the News Media. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1990; New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Betty Houchin Winfield