Bush's media challenges recall those of JFK

April 05, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- U.S. President George W. Bush faces media challenges eerily similar to those confronted more than 40 years ago by President John F. Kennedy, especially as regards news coverage of foreign affairs, says a Penn State analyst of political rhetoric.

Both Bush and Kennedy were voted into office by razor-thin margins and were initially perceived as inexperienced and untested. Both were products of privilege and graduates of Ivy League schools, says Thomas W. Benson, author of the recently published book, "Writing JFK: Presidential Rhetoric and the Press in the Bay of Pigs Crisis" (Texas A&M Press).

"Both presidents issued calls to the nation to gird for struggle against a dangerous enemy; in Kennedy's case, this was the Soviet Union, with Bush, it is internationalism terrorism. In waging this war, Bush, like Kennedy before him, has urged press restrictions on coverage and created tensions with the media," says Benson, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Rhetoric in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State.

"Kennedy and Bush were accused of manipulating the press and both were accused of acting on the basis of inadequate intelligence. Kennedy's reaction was to reform intelligence practices; Bush has generally denied that intelligence was faulty or corrupted," he adds.

The book examines in detail two speeches by Kennedy in the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba aimed at overthrowing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro (April 17, 1961). Kennedy gave the first address on April 20 before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C., the second on April 27 before the American Newspaper Publishers Association in New York City.

Kennedy's remarks to the ASNE editors uncannily anticipated Bush's reasoning for a preemptive, virtually unilateral strike against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. According to the book, the U.S. president warned, "Any unilateral American intervention, in the absence of an external attack upon us or an ally, would have been contrary to our traditions and to our international obligations. But let the record show that our restraint is not inexhaustible. Should it ever appear that the inter-American doctrine of non-interference merely conceals or excuses a policy of nonaction -- if the nations of this Hemisphere should fail to meet their commitments against outside Communist penetration -- then I want it clearly understood that this Government will not hesitate in meeting its primary obligations which are to the security of this Nation!"

Since the country was in the full throes of the Cold War, the implications of such a threat seem to have troubled the press little, Benson says. Most reporters accepted Kennedy's self-depiction as a leader able to accept responsibility and learn from his mistakes. They also warmed to his appeals for moral support in a trying time, according to the book.

A week later, Kennedy addressed the ANPA publishers and, this time, went beyond requests for empathy to strong hints that the press should constrain its own reporting of foreign affairs, the book says.

While careful not to question the loyalty or motives of the nation's newspapers, Kennedy observed, "This nation's foes have openly boasted of acquiring through our newspapers information they would otherwise hire agents to acquire through theft, bribery or espionage." He requested the newspaper industry to weigh the present danger in foreign affairs and "heed the duty of self-restraint which that danger imposes."

In the key passage of the speech, Kennedy said, "Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story, 'Is it news?' All I suggest is that you add the question: 'Is it in the interest of the national security?' "

This second speech to the media was less well received, with Newsweek noting in its May 8 issue that "the President's words instantly conveyed the strong smell of censorship." The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe echoed these sentiments to some degree, the book says.

The press had already complained about Kennedy's use of televised press conferences, which seemed to allow the president to speak over the heads of reporters to the American public. His post-Bay of Pigs suggestion that the press monitor its own reporting of the news aroused additional resentment and a determination by the media to frustrate White House manipulation, Benson says.

"By the time John Kennedy took office, the presidency had become an increasingly rhetorical office," Benson notes. "As rhetorical power and drama expanded so, too, did the practice of ghostwriting and the mechanics of government public relations. In its turn, the press, joined by radio and television, developed new practices and new idioms to cop with the flow of government information and, in some cases, to resist becoming the passive agents."

George W. Bush, like John F. Kennedy, has found relations with the media to be a paradox, with the presidency and the media both collaborating and competing at the same time, adds the Penn State researcher.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017