History review: ‘Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion,’ by Harold Holzer
Conventional wisdom suggests that today’s politics has grown into something more vicious than ever and that today’s media have evolved into something more personal than ever.
Tell that to Abraham Lincoln.
Before he ever became the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln shrewdly observed that “public sentiment” is everything. And as Harold Holzer shows in his new biography, Lincoln and the Power of the Press, the most political of all presidents also proved to be quite wily in his ability to manage and manipulate the media.
As with all things Lincoln, the man’s genius emerged fully during his presidency. In his dealings with the press, Lincoln proved a savvy spin doctor long before the term was invented.
This was the era of the partisan press. Newspapers unabashedly chose sides on the issues. So initially, Lincoln took a hard line with the press. John Kennedy once joked about canceling a newspaper subscription. Lincoln did him one better: He canceled whole newspapers. Using the exigency of war as the pretext, he authorized the military to temporarily close New York’s Journal of Commerce and World.
But Lincoln always possessed the ability to change tactics when necessary. When it came to the press, he soon abandoned the approach of the closed fist and instead opted for the hidden hand.
The three major newspaper editors in New York were Henry J. Raymond of the Times, James Gordon Bennett of the Herald and Horace Greeley the Tribune. Lincoln began to court all three in different ways. Many of his strategies proved to be ahead of their time.
Long before Ronald Reagan gave television addresses to rally the public and avoid talking to the press, Lincoln perfected the art of releasing public letters. Though the letters were ostensibly addressed to the major newspaper editors, the real audience was the general public. “Greeley, Raymond, and Bennett may have continued commenting on Lincoln’s statements,” Holzer observes, “but when the president spoke out in print, their own editorials often seemed more like sidebars.”
Lincoln may also have been the first president to stage a public press event. Embarking to Gettysburg on Nov. 18, 1863, he made sure to bring along a group of reporters — what would now be called a traveling press pool.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln ensured that the first person to see his handwritten remarks after they were delivered was Joseph Ignatius Gilbert, a local reporter covering the event for The Associated Press. Maybe his speech did in fact hit the crowd like a “wet blanket” that day. But Lincoln had a different audience in mind. And since then as now AP stories were carried by newspapers everywhere, the president ensured that his speech would be read far and wide. In Gilbert’s telling, Lincoln’s speech was interrupted by applause six times. People reading about the speech in California or Kansas could be forgiven for thinking the speech had been a success.
Meanwhile, the New York papers gave the speech little editorial comment, although all three printed the speech in its entirety. Holzer concludes that “the Gettysburg Address was the biggest Civil War story Greeley, Raymond, and Bennett missed.” But their readers didn’t miss it. Again, Lincoln had outsmarted the press.
Of course, a darker side existed to Lincoln’s spin operation. At one point, he tried to essentially bribe one editor with the offer of an ambassadorship. But in this magisterially written and meticulously researched book, the overall portrait is one of a president who understood that he had to manipulate the press to manage the public. That he did it so well played no small role in his ultimate victory in the Civil War.
Kasey S. Pipes serves as the Norris Public Policy Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College and authored “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”
Lincoln and the Power of the Press
The War for Public Opinion