Journalists love to use past presidents to measure today’s politicians, either to build up those who exemplify their historical liberal heroes, or to belittle conservatives with whom they disagree. So on this President’s Day, here’s a deep dive into the MRC’s archives showing how the media have used presidents from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to JFK as talking points in today’s political battles.
When Bill Clinton faced impeachment in the 1990s, for example, the media discovered that our 3rd President Thomas Jefferson was really “a ’90s kind of guy” who could give the 41st President some needed political cover. When Hillary Clinton was attempting to hide her role in the deadly Benghazi debacle, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews argued FDR was just as “secretive and manipulative” but also (to Matthews) “probably the best president we ever had.”
On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was derided as akin to “ineffectual Dr. Feelgoods like William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge who swam with the tide of their times,” and George W. Bush was lumped in with post-Civil War leaders “Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland — presidents who will be remembered only in a blur of failure.”
It’s less about actual history and more of a lesson about how liberal journalists want you to see American history and present-day politics:
■ “I like to say that, in some ways, Barack Obama is the first president since George Washington to be taking a step down into the Oval Office. I mean, from visionary leader of a giant movement, now he’s got an executive position that he has to perform in, in a way.”
— ABC Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran to Media Bistro’s Steve Krakauer in a February 20, 2009 “Morning Media Menu” podcast.
■ “[Senator John McCain has] done it [picked Sarah Palin] at great cost, because the whole Republican convention...was going to be the slogan, ‘He’s not ready to lead,’ meaning Barack Obama. Well, Sarah Palin makes Barack Obama look like John Adams. I mean, it’s just, it’s no contest.”
— Newsweek’s Howard Fineman on MSNBC’s Countdown, August 29, 2008.
■ “Could a new genetic study suggesting Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with a slave be a boost for President Clinton in fighting impeachment?”
— CNN anchor Marina Kolbe, October 31, 1998 The World Today.
■ “If the test results mean Jefferson is now regarded as what one scholar calls ‘a ’90s kind of guy,’ the White House must be smiling. After all, if Bill Clinton’s favorite President could end up on Mount Rushmore and the two-dollar bill, despite being sexually active with a subordinate, it might put Mr. Clinton’s conduct with a certain intern in a different light.”
— NBC reporter Bob Faw, November 2, 1998 Nightly News.
■ “Certain times with George Bush there seems to be an irrelevancy, or he gets something wrong. We pointed out yesterday he referred to Benjamin Harrison dying of pneumonia after a chilly inauguration day, and of course it was William Tyler Harrison who died.”
— NBC White House correspondent John Cochran botching a reference to William Henry Harrison during live coverage of George H. W. Bush’s inauguration, January 20, 1989.
■ “He [George W. Bush] has always countered criticism with the belief that history will prove him right, yet some presidential historians are already saying that President Bush might have passed the James Buchanans and the Richard Nixons to become the worst president ever.”
— Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown April 21, 2006, introducing an interview with left-wing historian Sean Wilentz, author of a May 4 Rolling Stone cover story asking if Bush is “The Worst President in History?”
■ “When we return, which party would Abraham Lincoln join today? Would he still be a Republican after all the talk about states’ rights and honoring the Confederacy?...Who do you think represents the spirit of Lincoln in today’s politics and who doesn’t, not a bit? You call it: The Democratic Party of Barack Obama, or the one that’s talking up secession, putting down General Grant, singing about states’ rights and pining for them good old days?”
— Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball, April 8, 2010.
■ “A [Mitt] Romney takeover of the White House might well rival Andrew Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865....Johnson stood by as Southern states enacted ‘black codes,’ which restricted rights of freed blacks and prevented blacks from voting. Romney stood by last year as Republican-controlled state legislatures passed voter-identification laws, making it harder for people of color, senior citizens and people with disabilities to exercise their fundamental right to vote. “
— Washington Post editorial writer Colbert I. King in his November 3, 2012 column, “Mitt Romney could be the next Andrew Johnson.”
■ “I read the book [My Life by Bill Clinton] completely. And I think it compares very favorably with Ulysses S. Grant’s gold standard of presidential autobiographies.”
— Dan Rather on CNN’s Larry King Live, June 18, 2004.
“While Dan Rather, who interviewed Mr. Clinton for 60 Minutes, has already compared the book to the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant...,My Life has little of that classic’s unsparing candor or historical perspective. Instead, it devolves into a hodgepodge of jottings: part policy primer, part 12-step confessional, part stump speech and part presidential archive, all, it seems, hurriedly written and even more hurriedly edited.”
— New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani in a June 20, 2004 front-page critique of My Life.
■ “[Vice President Dick] Cheney has helped, sir, to make your administration into the kind our ancestors saw in the 1860s and 1870s and 1880s, the ones that abandoned Reconstruction, and sent this country marching backwards into the pit of American Apartheid. Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland — presidents who will be remembered only in a blur of failure....You, sir, have no business being President.”
— Host Keith Olbermann addressing President George W. Bush in a December 6, 2007 “Special Comment” on MSNBC’s Countdown.
■ Historian Clay Jenkinson: “There’s no question that Roosevelt is an imperialist. Apologists like to try to play this down. But the fact is he’s probably the most significant imperialist in American history....There is a blood lust in Theodore Roosevelt. He was a killer. You can’t sanitize that....”
Ex-Newsweek editor Evan Thomas: “Teddy Roosevelt, although he’s a wonderful figure and a glamorous figure, is a dangerous figure in some ways. This glorification of war can’t be a good thing in the long run.”
— From the first installment of PBS’s documentary series, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, September 14, 2014.
■ “A hundred years from now — long after Ronald Reagan has been lumped with other ineffectual Dr. Feelgoods like William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge who swam with the tide of their times — the last fourth of the 20th century will be remembered for the demise of imperial communism, and the Soviet Union’s President [Mikhail Gorbachev] will be remembered for both making and letting it happen.”
— Boston Globe Washington bureau correspondent and columnist Tom Oliphant, December 28, 1989.
■ “[George H. W.] Bush was saddled with a lot of the supply-side voodooism of the Reagan era, but just as Herbert Hoover could not escape the excesses of Warren Harding and doltishness of Calvin Coolidge, no one will even remember the dish that Bush was served up by Reagan....Reagan was not the president of Morning in America, he was president of the free lunch. He gave us growth, but the cost was borrowed money, more than a trillion dollars of debt.”
— Retired Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief Robert Healy, October 11, 1990.
■ “Franklin Roosevelt — probably the best president we ever had, certainly in the 20th century — was very secretive and manipulative, and we still thought he was a good president. So if Hillary Clinton is secretive, we know that, is that going to help us get any further here?”
— Host Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball, May 21, 2015, discussing Hillary’s Benghazi scandal.
■ Host Tim Russert: “You told The New York Times something I found very interesting and let me just read it for our viewers. ‘We define the character issue so narrowly. My idea of a great president is a guy who cheated on his wife in such a damaging way it pretty much ended their marriage, drank a pitcher of martinis every night, cheated at poker with his friends, lied to his staff, sicced the IRS on his enemies, and my father voted for him four times: FDR.’”
Former Newsweek writer Joe Klein: “That was inaccurate, my father pointed out to me, it wasn’t him, my grandfather voted for him. But it’s true, it’s absolutely true.”
— Exchange on CNBC’s Tim Russert, August 9, 1997.
■ “If I had to pick the best presidents in my lifetime, I would of course pick Roosevelt and Kennedy, and I would also pick Harry Truman.”
— ABC’s David Brinkley in The Washington Post Magazine, April 10, 1988.
■ “[It] occurs to me we are sitting thirty feet from Harry Truman’s official White House portrait. Members of your base are asking: ‘When are you going to get your Harry Truman on?’”
— Brian Williams’ questions to President Barack Obama in an interview shown on the NBC Nightly News, September 12, 2011.
■ “George W. has reverted to the Republican fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan, the ones his father characterized as voodoo economics....President Bush should have used a different presidential model: Dwight Eisenhower, whose fiscal discipline kept the economy growing and inflation under control.”
— U.S. News & World Report Editor-in-Chief Mortimer Zuckerman concluding a March 12, 2001 back page essay.
■ “Today, the audacity of hope had its rendezvous with destiny. The Kennedy clan anointed Barack Obama a son of Camelot.”
— ABC’s David Wright on the January 28, 2008 World News, reporting on Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama.
■ “You know, I think that the distaste that people may feel for this [Monica Lewinsky story] will also be because of the fact that the probing into this persons private life has occurred. I think past presidents, Lyndon Johnson for one, certainly Jack Kennedy, these things went on, you know, libido and leadership are linked.”
— Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift during live MSNBC coverage on January 21, 1998, reacting to charges Bill Clinton had sex with a White House intern.
■ “If Nixon symbolically represents Iago, constantly plotting revenge on his enemies, then the Kennedys, first the father and now the son, are the modern-day embodiments of Icarus. In their love for action and adventure, in the charisma that effortlessly radiated from their every gesture, the Kennedys will always represent the triumph and ultimate tragedy of flying too near the sun.”
— USA Today “Hype & Glory” columnist Walter Shapiro, July 21, 1999.
■ “For Ronald Reagan to ride off into the sunset unscathed by the Iran-Contra affair is totally unfair to Richard Nixon. What Reagan, his Cabinet and staff did to the nation was much worse than what cost Nixon his presidency.”
— Former Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief Robert Healy, January 22, 1994 column.
■ “Let’s not debate his presidency, but his passing. As opposed to a man like Reagan, Nixon is, was highly regarded as a genuine statesman with a first-class mind.”
— NBC’s Bryant Gumbel on Today, April 26, 1994.
■ Correspondent Lesley Stahl: “When all is said and done — and many will be surprised to hear this — Jimmy Carter got more of his programs passed than Reagan and Nixon, Ford, Bush 1, Clinton or Bush 2.”
Former President Jimmy Carter: “I had the best batting average in the Congress in recent history of any president, except Lyndon Johnson.”
— Exchange on CBS’s 60 Minutes, September 19, 2010.
■ “In less than two years, Bill Clinton had already achieved more domestically than John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush combined. Although Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan often had their way with Congress, Congressional Quarterly says it’s Clinton who has had the most legislative success of any President since Lyndon Johnson. Inhale that one.”
— Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter, October 3, 1994.
■ Co-host Joe Scarborough: “When you’re comparing it to other presidents, you can look at LBJ. You can look at Ronald Reagan. You can look at Bill Clinton….The list of accomplishments for Joe Biden and this Democratic Congress in a really divided climate just seem to keep growing.”...
MSNBC’s Way Too Early host Jonathan Lemire: “It does rank up there with any modern president, the number of legislation done.”
— MSNBC’s Morning Joe, August 8, 2022.
■ Co-host Bryant Gumbel: “Well, later on this morning we’re going to be talking on this President’s Day about this presidential survey. Who would you think finished first?...Of all the presidents when they did first to worst. Oh c’mon, you would know.”
Co-host Jane Clayson: “Ronald Reagan.”
Gumbel, dropping his pen: “First?!?!”
Clayson: “Who was it?”
Gumbel: “No! Reagan wasn’t even in the top ten. Abraham Lincoln. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
— Exchange on CBS’s The Early Show about C-SPAN poll of historians which ranked Reagan 11th, February 21, 2000.