The haze of nostalgia often blinds people to the problems of the past. This is especially true in politics and journalism, where current practitioners love to wax rhapsodic about how great things were in the good old days, when everybody got along and drank whiskey with each other and were regular old pals.
Harold Holzer’s “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion” is here to offer an antidote to our nostalgic haze, while rendering a fascinating story in the process.
With his usual sparkling prose and exhaustive research, one of America’s foremost scholars on the 16th president has given us a robust portrait of the nexus between American politics and the press. As much as it is a telling slice of Lincolniana — the kind of detail-rich tapestry we have come to expect from Holzer — it is also a lively history of mid-19th century journalism.
It’s an often unpretty picture.
Very early in his political career, starting in the 1830s, Lincoln grasped the importance of wooing the press. In those days, newspapers were openly partisan. A paper was a Whig paper, or it was a Democratic paper. Unlike today, no pretense of objectivity intervened between the reporter and the office holder.
Lincoln’s Springfield, Ill., writes Holzer, was a “seething two-party battleground where election campaigns took on the urgency of outright war, and combatants deployed newspapers as their most powerful weapons.”
Hoping to boost his political fortunes, Lincoln even secretly bought a German-language paper serving the immigrant community in central Illinois, the Staats-Anzeiger.
Sorting out who was telling the truth was left to the voters. The papers “combined advocacy with almost libelous criticism,” according to Holzer. Sometimes they forgot the almost.
Holzer, who built his reputation by focusing on singular aspects of Lincoln’s career, most successfully in “Lincoln at Cooper Union,” “Lincoln: President-elect,” and “Emancipating Lincoln,” spends less time here talking about Lincoln than he does about the journalists Lincoln courted and battled. In so doing, Holzer reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the players. He seems to have read every issue of every newspaper of the day in Springfield, Chicago, New York and Washington, then read everything ever written about them.
He frames the story around three New York press titans: the irascible James Gordon Bennett of the Herald, the unpredictable Horace Greeley of the Tribune and the politically astute but sometimes undependable Henry J. Raymond of the Times.
Raymond and Greeley were reformers at heart. Bennett was a showman, “the father of modern tabloid journalism.” In Holzer’s tender telling, Bennett was “ornery and unpredictable.” Actually, he was a racist, anti-Semitic misanthrope, and, unlike both Greeley and Raymond, had “no pretense to lofty idealism.”
Holzer details the rise of all three, their intersections with politics and policy and how the men affected their times. But he also notes how the times affected the men.
Steam-powered presses, railroads and the telegraph revolutionized newspapers, just as they did the rest of American society. With steam presses, more copies could be printed faster. Railroads made possible the much wider distribution of those copies. Politics was sport, and people loved to participate. The newspaper boom made that possible.
Lincoln was both observer and practitioner.
Law partner William Herndon noted, “Lincoln’s education was almost entirely a newspaper one.” Somehow he turned out OK. He embraced the “interlocking worlds of partisan politics and journalism,” Holzer notes, and, according to Herndon, “never overlooked a newspaper man who had it in his power to say a good or bad thing of him.”
‘The Purity of Their Character’
Something less than half the book is dedicated to the antebellum period, when Lincoln was a successful lawyer and somewhat less successful politician, and Bennett, Greeley and Raymond were warring with each other and making their reputations.
The rest is dedicated to the somewhat more familiar story of Lincoln’s controversial dealings with the wartime press.
As commander in chief, Lincoln allowed military authorities to shutter the newspapers of Confederate sympathizers, sometimes even of mere administration critics. Holzer points out that “censors routinely interfered not only with military, but also with government news.” Use of the telegraph lines was severely restricted. And his generals were famously rough with reporters.
The Battle of First Manassas, 30 miles west of Washington, was thickly covered by reporters as inexperienced at the craft of war as were many of the freshly recruited soldiers — “leaderless amateurs,” in the words of Times of London correspondent William Howard Russell, who had covered the Crimean War and was decidedly not an amateur. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who commanded Union forces at Manassas, summed up his — and most of his colleagues’ — disdain for the gentlemen of the press by suggesting they “wear a white uniform, to indicate the purity of their character.”
Conveying a conversation with War Secretary Simon Cameron, Russell noted that “he says the press rules America. I don’t think it does. I’m certain it oughtn’t.”
Holzer doesn’t hazard a guess at the number of reporters who covered the war, but concludes that it was “the largest cadre of war correspondents ever to take to the field anywhere in the world up to that time.”
Their coverage was often “imperfect and untimely,” but it drove Lincoln and his generals — especially the volatile William Tecumseh Sherman, who hated almost all reporters — to distraction as they tried to manage the news, with varying degrees of success.
Lincoln’s strategy toward the press, as with all else, evolved as the war progressed, and he used carrots as well as sticks. But he remained wary of the power of the press until the day he died, usually with good reason.
John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ and Roll Call and the author of
“America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.”
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