PRESIDENCY AND THE PRESS:
REAGAN TO GEORGE W. BUSH
When Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981, a
sophisticated media team took over the White House communications operation. The clumsy stonewalling and deceit
that marked the Watergate years of Richard Nixon and the
inept and isolated Rose Garden strategy of Jimmy Carter
during the Iranian hostage crisis gave way to a sunny, television-oriented appeal from the most effective chief messenger since John F. Kennedy died nearly two decades earlier.
By 1980, campaigns—especially presidential campaigns—
turned on how well candidates used television. This involved
the use of both paid advertising and what campaign consultants call “free media”—the candidate’s ability to connect with voters on a personal level, especially in his or her
nightly appearances on television news. Reagan’s skills as
a former movie actor and television pitchman helped him
present the image of a tough, confident, upbeat leader—
seemingly different from his Democratic opponent in 1984,
Walter Mondale. Reagan had an actor’s natural ability to
speak a line without making it seem scripted. For example,
in a 1984 presidential debate, he defused a controversy over
his advancing age by joking that he would not take advantage of his Democratic rival’s “youth and inexperience.”
Even Mondale had to laugh.
As a candidate and as president, Reagan had an uncanny
ability to hit just the right note, even in a crisis—as when
he joked to doctors treating him after he had been shot in
March 1981, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Indeed, some
of Reagan’s most memorable moments as president were his
speeches, most notably his salute at Normandy to the veterans of World War II and his insistent demand that Soviet
leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down” the Berlin Wall. The
live press conference, though, was not Reagan’s best forum
as he often seemed uninformed. After the early months of
his presidency, he appeared less frequently in this setting.
On those occasions when Reagan was off-key or appeared
adrift—as when he misstated facts in press conferences—
few citizens seemed to care as much as the White House
press corps did.
More than any other single president, Reagan and
his communications team pioneered modern governing
through public relations. Michael Deaver, who was Deputy
White House Chief of Staff, was among those who worked
to manage media coverage of the president. Ed Rollins, a
leading political strategist, managed Reagan’s successful
re-election campaign in 1984. In considering the use of public relations by this administration, though, one should also
remember that Reagan, himself, had considerable experience in this area dating back to his days as an information
officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II and
then later as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
In his struggle with the Democratically controlled Congress, Reagan was aided by an unwitting media. Research
has shown that presidents have the advantage over Congress in the battle to dominate the airwaves. The executive
branch routinely receives three times more news coverage
than does the legislative branch. Moreover, while a majority of news reports of the executive branch are negative in
tone, television and newspaper reporters treat the legislative branch even more negatively, regardless of which party
controls the White House or Congress.
The media’s role in helping Reagan was ironic, given
the highly contentious relations between this president and
the press. Studies show that Reagan’s coverage was mainly
negative from the outset, as his efforts to reverse the role of
government and alter the strategic balance in the Cold War
reversed many years of settled policy. Liberals charged that
members of the media were not tough enough on Reagan,
even as reporters complained that their stories on his gaffes
and foibles did not seem to make any difference with the
public. Perhaps the cruelest blow to journalistic egos was
the president’s nonchalance in shrugging off apparently
Much of Reagan’s popularity depended on his technique
of going over the heads of the media to appeal directly to
the public. But the power of televised rhetoric and personal
appeals should not be overestimated. Contrary to some critics, he was not a “teflon president” to whom no bad news
would stick. Studies have shown that Reagan’s standing in
the polls tracked the condition of the national economy. He
was unpopular during the recession that began his term and
highly popular during the economic expansion that followed. Rather than any magic touch, that explains why voters responded in 1984 to his campaign slogan, “It’s morning
again in America.”
Moreover, when the Iran-contra scandal emerged during
Reagan’s second term, the president’s media magic seemed
to evaporate. Growing numbers of citizens were critical of
him as details of the scandal unfolded, and polls showed
that many doubted his denials of knowledge about the illegal activities involved. But a strong economy is the best
teflon for a president, and however unsteady his administration became, voters were still willing to elect Reagan’s
understudy as president in 1988.
In sharp contrast to his predecessor, George H.W. Bush
may have been less comfortable in front of television cameras than any other president. His 1988 campaign demonstrated some effective media moments: a key line, “Read
my lips, no new taxes”; well-planned photo opportunities,
such as a visit to a flag factory; and effective TV ads that
played on public fears of crime by denouncing opponents
with coded racial appeals. Lee Atwater is credited with
having created some of Bush’s most effective publicity in
1988, including the Willie Horton ad which implied that
Bush’s challenger, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, was
soft on crime. Horton was an African American and a convicted murderer who had committed rape while on furlough
from prison. Once in office, Bush’s ability to mobilize public support was hampered by his poor stage presence, occasionally fractured syntax, and a general impression that he
viewed media relations as a necessary evil. This caught up
with him in the 1992 re-election campaign, when his stumbling performances before the cameras left him unable to
sell voters on his stewardship of an economy that was just
beginning to emerge from a lengthy recession.
Although Reagan’s successor had showed sparks of his
predecessor’s media effectiveness during his 1988 campaign, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (and their media
teams) turned out to be far more successful students of the
man dubbed “The Great Communicator.” Just as Reagan
had done a dozen years earlier, Clinton drew on his optimistic, media-savvy persona to overcome public doubts
about him in securing electoral victory.
As the media environment had changed, the marketing
of the presidency now changed as well. Much of this change
was the product of necessity. During the 1992 primaries
Clinton faced an onslaught of criticism about his past, including allegations of avoiding the draft and smoking marijuana
in the 1960s (he claimed he “didn’t inhale”), and persistent reports of womanizing. In a last-ditch effort to overcome his
negative press on the “character” issue, Clinton introduced
America to talk show campaigning. He appeared on Phil
Donahue’s popular syndicated show and engaged a sympathetic studio audience in conversation about problems facing
the country. He donned sunglasses and played the saxophone
on the “Arsenio Hall Show.” During an appearance on MTV
he even answered a query about his preference in underwear
(boxer shorts rather than briefs).
In these venues Clinton established one-on-one connections with audience members (and the viewers at home) in
a way his opponents, who remained tethered to ten-second
soundbites, could not match. His upbeat demeanor and
folksy style seemed to encourage forgiveness on the part of
voters looking for new leadership after an economic recession. Later this same easy-going manner helped the first
Baby Boomer president connect with the informal young
adults increasingly drawn to late night TV comedians,
cable news, and the daytime talk programs. Such outlets
also provided new avenues for bypassing an aggressive
Like Reagan, Clinton’s personal popularity saved his job
when things got tough: Although the Republican-led House
of Representatives impeached him in 1998 on charges of
perjury relating to the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones
scandals, strong majorities of the public—consistently over
60 percent—sided with the president throughout the yearlong controversy. The Senate, reading the public’s mood,
acquitted the popular chief executive in early 1999.
After the deadlocked and divisive election of 2000,
incoming President George W. Bush struggled to win public acceptance. His early efforts to connect with people succeeded mainly on a personal level—many citizens viewed
him as a likeable everyman. Research showed that his
news coverage was mainly negative. Bush’s media image
and political fortunes turned around in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. His public approval ratings skyrocketed
in the weeks that followed, and they did not drop back to
pre-September 11 levels until near the end of his first term.
However, it is not clear that Bush’s communications strategy played a major role in this turnaround. As commanderin-chief, his pronouncements about America’s resolve to
fight Al Queda certainly helped to unify the country. But
his immediate reactions were criticized as indecisive, and
many critics believed that during the crisis, the president’s
command presence was outshone by that of New York City
Mayor Rudi Giuliani.
Nonetheless, studies found that Bush’s network news coverage jumped from stories that were 2 to 1 negative to stories
that were 2 to 1 positive following September 11 to the end of
2001. This was mainly due to a “rally ‘round the flag effect”
that occurs in the wake of international crises. The public
and the press both treat the president—any president—as
America’s unifying leader rather than a divisive politician.
As the president benefits from more favorable news coverage, his popularity rises sharply. Studies of recent U.S. military engagements, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the
1999 Kosovo crisis, the aftermath of September 11, 2001,
and the initial combat phase of the 2003 Iraq war, have all
found a shift in the tone of television news toward mainly
positive coverage the incumbent president.
The Bush administration also moved to mobilize American and world opinion behind the U.S. war on terrorism.
After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the President Bush
appointed a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers,
to be Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. Beers held the
post until she resigned in March, 2003. She was replaced by
former Morocco Ambassador Margaret D Tutwiler. Karen
Hughes, a former Dallas TV reporter and adviser to President Bush, became Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy
and Public Affairs, in July, 2005.
The war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, started in late
2001, received high marks from the public and the press, as
did the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The latter was launched following administration warnings that Iraqi leader Saddam
Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and its
implication that the Hussein regime was connected to the
World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The Bush administration’s decision to “embed” reporters with military units
in Iraq helped secure positive news coverage and allowed
U.S. audiences to see the rapid advances made by the U.S.
military on the road to Baghdad. Likewise, Bush’s many
appearances before friendly military audiences encouraged
people to think of the man who been criticized for avoiding
service in Vietnam as a tough president for tough times.
As was the case with the Vietnam War, the American
public by 2007 appeared to have soured on military activities that went on longer than expected without a clear exit
strategy. Aggressive communication strategies employed to
build public support for the Iraq war boomeranged when
the administration failed to find either weapons of mass
destruction or a credible connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Perhaps most
importantly, American casualties continued to climb, with
no end in sight, long after the president declared “mission
accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier on May
The 24/7 news cycles occasioned by the advent of cable
television and online media intensify the problems faced
by the modern presidency. Cable news is always on and
must always be reporting about something. As a result, stories that even hint of scandal get turned into soap operas
that keep viewers coming back for more, and key televised
moments get repeated constantly, greatly magnifying their
impact. Online commentators are often fervent partisans
who do not adhere to traditional media standards of accuracy and balance. So far the online world, and especially
the blogosphere, leans far more toward editorializing than
reporting, especially as compared to traditional news organizations. But in order to compete with online media, some
mainstream news outlets are increasing their offerings of
aggressive, largely one-sided commentary.
The increasing cacophony of the modern media may
provide future presidents with an advantage over the press
in setting the agenda for public policy. Presidents may find it easier to favor more supportive media outlets when the
audience for any one outlet is relatively small. Product differentiation concerns may lead media companies to favor
more one-sided coverage, as some suggest has been the case
in the years since the rise of talk radio and Fox News. Or
perhaps the in-your-face new online media environment
will overwhelm White House attempts to set the agenda,
as reporters and bloggers go in directions of their own
The only certainty is that a rapidly changing media
environment will present future presidents with new challenges, and their success will depend greatly on how well
they can turn dangers into opportunities. Meanwhile, journalists will have to explore new methods and practices if
they are to keep the public informed about the executive
branch while holding the president accountable to the
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S. Robert Lichter
PRESIDENCY AND THE PRESS: