Presidents' press relations, like William Shakespeare's “course of true love,” never did run smoothly. That was certainly true much of the time for Woodrow Wilson, and historians have dwelled on those strains and his shortcomings. By contrast, this magisterial examination of Wilson's relations with the press during World War I and its aftermath at the Paris Peace Conference and in the League of Nations fight at home takes a more balanced and largely, but not totally, sympathetic view. As James D. Startt states at the outset, “throughout this study, Wilson emerges as a politician who had his successes and failures with the press and as a prophet who inspired many of its practitioners to his cause” (p. xii). Of this excellent book's many strengths, perhaps the greatest is the way it stresses both sides of its subject—the president and the press. Wilson and his circle necessarily drive the narrative and analysis. Startt faults the president for some of his actions, most notably his discontinuing of weekly meetings with the White House correspondents in the wake of the Lusitania sinking and the restricted access of the press during the peace conference. Yet he credits Wilson as the originator of regular meetings with the press corps, which Franklin D. Roosevelt revived twenty years later. He also notes that much of what transpired in Paris came from Wilson reluctantly bowing to the far more restrictive demands of the other Allied leaders. Startt also emphasizes how his secretary, Joseph Tumulty, performed the duties later to be filled by a press secretary as well as chief of staff. Likewise, Startt delves into how much Col. Edward House devoted himself to working his contacts with journalists, most notably Walter Lippmann. Characteristically, the colonel was usually manipulating those journalists in ways that would lead a future presidential press secretary, Jonathan W. Daniels, to call him “that devious son of a bitch.” Likewise, the other side of the relationship—the press—receives fulsome and sensitive coverage. Startt ranged far and wide for newspapers, magazines, and even the infant newsreels, and he examined manuscript collections of journalists and others in the United States and abroad. Complicating Wilson's press relations were the political allegiances of the great majority of newspapers outside the South—roughly 90 percent Republican—together with the hostility of the German-language press from the first months of the war, even before the Lusitania. Another problem Wilson faced was the reporters covering the White House, who were then less able and well educated than they later became. As Startt observes, one of Wilson's accomplishments was to broaden their horizons and make them pay more attention to international affairs. Definitive is a word historians usually avoid, but it characterizes this book better than any other. Its research, interpretation, and writing are impeccable, and anyone interested in its several subjects, as well as the evolving nature of presidents' relations with the press, should read it forthwith. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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