James Wall

The Press and the Presidency

VTR Date: February 3, 1981

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Wall
Title: “The Press and the Presidency”
VTR: 2/3/1981

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I introduced Dr. James Wall as my guest last week, I indicated that I was brought up to believe, like so many of us, that one doesn’t discuss either politics or religion in polite company. But we did both. For Dr. Wall is Editor of the Christian Century, one of the most distinguished religious publications in contemporary America. And as a friend of Jimmy Carter, was also one of the president’s leading spokesman in Democratic politics in Illinois. We did discuss politics and/or religion. And we’ll do so again today. Dr. Wall, thanks for staying with me, and going on to “Wall, Part II”. We touched on the subject of politics and I was…I went back over a number of your editorials in Christian Century, and the one that appeared December, 1980, you entitled “The Fear of Authority”. And you raised a question: Why do we elevate leaders to this high post of power? And then set about undermining their ability to govern by questioning their capacity to do so? And I wondered if you had carried in your own personal analysis of American politics this question any further. Is it something that had bothered you particularly much?

WALL: Well, if you recall from that editorial, I did allude to the fact that this particular generation, if you will, that grew up out of the sixties that seem to throw over authority, may have accentuated perhaps a normal American resistance to authority. That is, to say that we may have exaggerated a feeling that’s kind of common to the American scene. And I think our media, especially our national television and our news magazines and newspapers and columnists participate in it. First of all, they’re products of, in many instances, of the 1960s rebellion against authority. And this fear of authority, this desire to make sure that no one tells me what to do, which is one reason interestingly enough, that the new Religious Right frightens the media so much, because the new Religious Right is saying “I’m going to tell you what to do” from a certain perspective, a fundamentalist perspective. So my analysis, as I indicated in that piece, was I’m afraid that we are going to continue to do that, afraid that we are going to continue to elevate people like President Carter and then immediately begin chewing him down. We’re going to elevate Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the presidency, and then immediately begin chewing him down. I call it a People Magazine attitude. Pull him down after we publicize him.

HEFFNER: Well, you seem to have felt over the last decade rather negatively, the role that the press has played generally, in the presentation of our political figures, in the presentation of our social issues. In the program we did for the other week, you were talking about the role that the liberal church had played in bringing about a reaction on the part of the reactionary or Right elements in the church. We didn’t touch on the press at that time particularly much. I gather over the years that you feel very, very strongly that it is the liberal press that has, to a very large extent, brought about this reaction to the liberalism of the past generation. Is that fair? Am I singling you out for an anti-press position?

WALL: No, no. I love the press. I’m a part of it. I’m a part of the church press, but I always appreciate journalism itself and I, like everybody else, couldn’t stand to be without it. I’m a newspaper buff. I read every paper of every city I get to. I watch some television. I mean, I am, I am a journalist. I suppose one has a tendency to go after one’s own people the most. But what I was suggesting in that line of thought, in terms of authority, is that there’s something about today’s journalism that seems to have a need to tear down authority. And that’s why I suspect that a lot of the mood of the sixties, which involved permissiveness, which helped to bring up the new Religious Right, was seized upon by major news media.

HEFFNER: You know, you said in this editorial on “The Fear of Authority” that we should ask the question again – you’re very good at rhetorical questions – “Why has our media adopted this new candor after permitting President John Kennedy certain freedom for White House sexual behavior now alleged, but then reported? Why did the press in Roosevelt’s day avoid photos of his crippled legs or any mention of his frequent visits to Lucy Rutherford while traveling between Warm Springs and Washington? Could it be that ardent hostility toward authority” (which the author you were discussing had identified) “beginning historically with the French Revolution reached an ugly period of intensity during the period of 1965 to 1975”, as you suggested a moment ago, “when young people in particular struck out against all authority, especially those in power in government and family education”. But Jim, as a one-time historian, I could go back and quote George Washington’s comments on The Scribblers, these venous Scribblers who were trying to but him off at the knees, trying to reduce his authority. We could look to Jefferson, we could look to Jackson, we could look to Lincoln and on and on and on. Is it really that new a phenomenon?

WALL: Well, I’m not sure. I…say I think this has been an American phenomenon. It’s been accentuated…

HEFFNER: …a phenomenon of the press…I’m not now talking about youth 200 years ago…

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: …I’m talking about the press.

WALL: Remember, the press that we presently do business with is a product of the sixties. That was 20 years ago. The people who are doing the columns, the people who are doing the television news coverage were themselves just out of their 20s in those days or were in their 20s in those days so they are part of that. This is the generation that’s taking over. But yes, this has been an American phenomenon. I just think that it has been accentuated in the last two decades.

HEFFNER: With what results?

WALL: Well, I think essentially negative results, the demeaning of the authority of the office, the demeaning of the responsibility. Now I’m on tricky ground here with a historian, you see that’s one of the best ways to open a phrase, “I’m not a historian”. But I suspect, with some exceptions, that the kinds of attacks on Washington may have been related to his conduct in office rather than his private life, or his personal well-being. The desire to publish a photograph of the president staggering after he’s been running is…as President Carter did in one of his jogging episodes…or fell, as he did recently…I don’t know – I don’t know how to compare it because we didn’t have photographs in those days – but I have a feeling that it is more personal today because a commercial media thinks that that’s what a People Magazine oriented public wants. And they may be right. We may be getting exactly what we’re asking for. But that’s what we’re getting, tearing down the Office of the President. They do not show Franklin Roosevelt’s crippled legs, but they do show Jimmy Carter falling or stumbling every time he came off…you know, one of the most athletically oriented presidents this country has ever had was given the image of being clumsy because a couple of times he stumbled coming off an airplane.

HEFFNER: Well, now let me ask…

WALL: That’s demeaning to the Office.

HEFFNER: Demeaning to the Office…tell me more about what you think the implications will be in the long run…

WALL: It makes it more difficult to govern. It makes it more difficult to lead. If you don’t have the people’s respect, when it comes time to make the decisions…John Kennedy was a good leader. He was respected by the public. And I think perhaps he was the last president to be so treated. Who knows. It will take a lot more time than we have today to analyze the post-assassination Kennedy. He could take a firm stand…first of all, he had an enormous charisma and communicative powers over television. This was a man who was able to get things done, to say things to the public and the public responded under him.

HEFFNER: Of course, they weren’t nickel and diming…

WALL: Had they been nickel and diming him on these alleged actions, and I don’t know that these actions are true that some of them have been written about, sexual behavior in the White House…I don’t know that they’re true, but they’ve been described, written about. Had there been nickel and diming, people would have lost respect for him. And how would he then have been able to accomplish what he accomplished? I just think that this business of wanting to pick at authority, in the White House in particular is very damaging to the Office. Now let’s wait and see what we do to Ronald Reagan.

HEFFNER: Do you think, Jim, that there is any possibility that having begun to travel down that road, having gone down it as far as you suggest, and I think it’s not inappropriate to date that at that great moment of national disillusion…

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …when we assassinated…when our President was assassinated.

WALL: Um hmm.

HEFFNER: …in 1963. Is there any way in which we can reverse that?

WALL: Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but I will say this: that Ronald Reagan may be working, or his people may be working to help to do that. One thing that Jimmy Carter did, perhaps incorrectly, is to make himself so available to the press on the outset. I mean, here was an outsider who said “Let’s make sure these people like us”. They didn’t do, obviously, enough of a job doing it. But one of the ways is to have a lot of press conferences, let the camera see you everywhere you go. I noticed not a long time ago that President Reagan came back from Camp David and I’ve been in the White House when President Carter came in from Camp David and the cameras are there. They see him come in. While Reagan came in recently the cameras were not allowed to be there. Now, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. It may mean that they are going to keep him apart from the press. There are disadvantages to it, I realize that. There is a negative side to it. But what I’m saying is that they may say to the press “We’re not going to let you exploit this human being”.

HEFFNER: Let me ask whether you think that we have gone down so far on this slippery slope…

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: …that what we’re going to have to do is adapt new political structures to correspond to what a free press does to us now, if we can no longer assume that authority will be respected and recognized for the kinds of periods of time it was respected and recognized in the past. Maybe we have to opt for a single-term president, a six-year president. Maybe we have to change our governmental structure to relate to what you describe.

WALL: The irony of this, of course, is that we elevate our president in ways that no other country in the world does.

HEFFNER: Then we cut them off…

WALL: Then we cut them off immediately. Just immediately begin chewing them down. A lot of people advocate the adoption of the parliamentary system which Great Britain has, for example, where you simply elevate a ranking member in the party in the legislature to the Prime Minister’s role. Then that person is not given such an aura of mystery and an aura of power. This country seems to want it both ways. It wants to elevate its presidents in high power, inaugurate him in all this excitement and then begin chewing him down. I don’t know, I think there is a general public revulsion to this. I hope there is.

HEFFNER: You think there is?

WALL: Revulsion is too strong a word…

HEFFNER: What indication is there…

WALL: Well, uh, I don’t like it. I talk to other people who don’t like it. I had people phoning me during the last 4 years knowing of my friendship with President Carter, offended of things that had been said about him, written about him. Many people who didn’t like him personally told me that they were offended at the way he was treated. So I don’t think the word “revulsion” is strong enough…I wish there were revulsion. Then you’d have change. But it’s possible that the public…and once again in a democracy what else can you do…for the public to rise up and say “Let’s not do that any more”.

HEFFNER: Well, Jim, you say you WISH there were some revulsion, because perhaps then there would be change.

WALL: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: What kind of change?

WALL: I want the public and I want the press to judge our leaders in terms of what they do, not in terms of their brother or their mother, or their jogging, or their whatever. I want…I’m tired of People Magazine oriented journalism covering this serious business of politics and of government. I don’t want to overstate this, but governing ourselves is a very moral act. How we govern ourselves is one of the most important things that happens to us in this country. And yet, by demeaning those who govern us so much, as the press seems to want to do, we make the process of governing less significant than it should be. And the end result is that people don’t respect those who govern, yet they give them such power to govern.

HEFFNER: Jim, you say YOU want…and I’ll join you, I want. But in a society concerned for the maintenance of a free press what does what you want and what I want have to do with what seems to be a successful – important word, successful – approach to American political leadership? That “cutting down, that cutting away, that picking away at” approach seems to be successful.

WALL: Well, I…

HEFFNER: …commercial…

WALL: Well, yeah, it’s obviously commercial success. That’s why it’s being done, okay? …any commercial business…the media is a commercial enterprise. The only thing you can hope, of course in such a business, such an enterprise, is that you change the mood of the country. If it doesn’t sell anymore then it won’t be done anymore. If people are turned away from it…that becomes the role of the opinion leaders in the country. That becomes the role of the churches, if you will, to take seriously the political process. To have – I’m talking basic politics, now – candidates right in churches, where we discuss issues, local candidates, and really elevate the political process to the necessary level where it should be elevated to. What you’re doing, you see, in a democracy, is building a good climate, which will then transform, then change the climate. You can’t force it, you can’t make it happen. The businesses that run the media will not respond unless the people buy it.

HEFFNER: You talk about creating a good climate, a moral climate. And as a minister, obviously, it is your religious training, your religious background, your religious orientation that enters into this to a good, to a fair extent. We spoke, in our last discussion, about the moral majority. We spoke a great deal about the far right and its successes in politics in our own times. Isn’t there a real connection between your crying for something good and right and righteous all together, and the success of the moral majority?

WALL: The methodology of the moral majority, which began with the desire to reach a large number of people with the message of the importance of politics…

HEFFNER: Um hmm.

WALL: …was legitimate. From that moment on I think it went downward.

HEFFNER: But I wasn’t talking about only methodology. I was talking about the infusion of the concepts of right and wrong and morality and immorality into this political process. I wonder how you…

WALL: The problem, of course…to put it differently, the difference in how the moral majority would infuse the process with religion is that they identify political actions AS religious actions, and say “This is God’s will. You’ll do it this way, or you will not be allowed to be politically leading”. The liberal community would prefer…best instincts; this is a suggested direction to take in the light of the options that are available politically. You cannot take political decisions, political actions, and sanction them religiously, which is what the moral majority…

HEFFNER: Yes, but it seems to me…please stop me if I’m being unfair…that you are taking actions of the press and judging those actions as moral/immoral.

WALL: No, no. I don’t like to use the words moral/immoral about the press’ behavior. See, that’s…right away, let me stop you because I wouldn’t want to say that the running of a picture of a stumbling president is immoral. That would be a misuse of the word “immoral”. I’m saying that to demean the presidency in any way harms the process of governing…unnecessarily demeaning…the word demeaning applies…if you demean the President, you harm the process of governing. In that sense there is an immoral attitude being created, but don’t have me say that one picture in the newspaper is an immoral act. See, that demeans the word “immoral”.

HEFFNER: But I’m not talking about one picture…I’m talking about these many, many editorials that I’ve read over the years…you first appeared six years ago on THE OPEN MIND, and I’ve read them, if not religiously, then at least eagerly, faithfully…

WALL: All right.

HEFFNER: …before and ever since, and I’m aware of the fact that certainly during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the presidency of your good friend, you were incensed, not just as a Democrat, about comments that were made in the interest of the Republican party. You were incensed about what you felt to be inappropriate, improper, and I would have said immoral…

WALL: Yes…

HEFFNER: …actions…

WALL: Yes, inappropriate and demeaning and biased. Bad journalism. I’d be willing…

HEFFNER: Bad journalism?

WALL: Yes, bad journalism. I’d be willing to say that the attacks on Carter…you’ve seen the…Carter’s campaigning…when he was president he was the one who was getting this. The President today made a speech about world peace but one of his closest aids admitted on the side that…I think is editorializing, deliberately attacking this man and trying to jazz up the evening news, trying to get that many more points ahead of the opposite network and they are inspired to do that when they don’t like the person. And they did not…I don’t mean those particular names I mentioned, but I know many journalists that told me in confidence that they did not like Carter. They showed…

HEFFNER: Soon I expect to hear about the…and I’m going to hear what Spiro T. Agnew had to say in November, 1969…the Nixon Administration gave the press an opportunity to get off its back, his back. The press, electronic and print, did not, and Spiro T. Agnew…

WALL: Well, you’re going to put me in the position of saying that I agree with Agnew, and pure and simple, I didn’t. I didn’t care for him a lot, certainly not what he was ultimately involved in, or his politics, but he had a point. That’s the whole point. He had a point. He was one of the early spokespersons for bashing out against the excessive hostility. And Nixon, we’re going to talk about Carter’s trouble with the press…Nixon was strongly disliked by many members of the press. And they tried their best to get at him. Ironically the one thing they could have gotten him with, Watergate, they missed entirely. They all waited until the McGovern campaign to find out what was going on. Except two young reporters from the Washington Post who pushed it on.

HEFFNER: Ultimately, of course, it was the press that…

WALL: Ironically, not the people, not the journalists that disliked him the most.

HEFFNER: No. Let’s get back to that Agnew speech, talking about the power of those who interpret, who come after the President.

WALL: Oh, that’s one of the worse things. Can I interrupt you?


WALL: When President Carter made his farewell address…I’ve gotten more good comments on that farewell address, by the way…he listed three general areas he felt we had to be concerned about. That speech was one of the best things he’s done. I couldn’t believe…and other people commented on this to me…how all three networks, because I shifted back and forth to listen, came immediately with comments – “He wasn’t specific on how this would be accomplished; The President didn’t tell us HOW he would do this; It was a pretty good speech, but it was vague…” I said to my wife “These guys would listen to the Sermon on the Mount, and when it was over these guys would say ‘Well, the Lord did pretty well, but he was too vague. He’s not going to tell us from where the money was going to come to take care of the poor.’” It was an unbelievable display of hostility against President Carter and one last effort to get at him.

HEFFNER: Modify that hostility against authority as you have said.

WALL: Well, I think this man was in authority for four years, and they also had a personal dislike for him. I hate to emphasize it so much, but you know this. People in the media know this. I remember…Carter came to Chicago in his last campaign, three reporters, very prominent reporters, said to me “You know, we are trying our best to tell the public that Jimmy Carter is mean. We want the public to know he’s mean”. Well, he’s not mean, but he’s a tough political person. I know that. I’ve been in politics with him. But the trouble is, that his image is not that he’s a tough political person, all right? They wanted, these reporters, to get the fact out that he’s mean. What happens? He makes a comment about Reagan during the campaign regarding war and peace. They coin the phrase “war monger” about Reagan. Carter never used “war monger”. But they…Therefore when he did make a statement about Black versus White, the media accused him of excessive racist language. I was at the meeting when he made that statement. It was a very quiet mild-mannered comment that people had to choose whether the Black communities were going to benefit from me or from my opponent. Ask the Black voter today what they think’s going to happen…all I’m saying is that this reporter, a very well-known, prominent reporter, said “We were trying to find some way to tell the public he’s mean, and he gave it to us”. And they blew it up successfully.

HEFFNER: Do you think that had anything to do with that Joe Jackson view and former president Carter share?

WALL: May I be honest with you?


WALL: Yes. I shall always believe to some extent that two things hurt his ability to relate to the national press. One was something like that. You’ve got two things. You’ve got non-Southerners who don’t like and fear the South for whatever reason – they had a top sergeant from Columbus, GA, who…in the stockade or something…you’ve got Southerners who rejected their heritage, and as a result, yes, I think the Southern accent hurt him a great deal. Then his religion. His religion never communicated itself to the general secular person. I can tell you on one had the number of people in the secular media who really understood that man’s faith. He was a deeply religious, faith-oriented person. But general media did not understand that and could not report on it. And when they did report on it they always distorted it.

HEFFNER: Jim, you say “didn’t understand it”.

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: It would be just as accurate to say “rejected it”.

WALL: Well, that’s a harsher word. I think they were hostile to it.

HEFFNER: But I think you’ve said that in your editorials in the past…

WALL: I’ve said that many times.

HEFFNER: …that they rejected it. They were hostile to it.

WALL: They were hostile to it. They hated it. Now what they’ve done of course…they thought, frankly, they thought in dealing with Carter they would be dealing with a fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell. They didn’t know the difference. There is night and day difference between Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist theology and the fundamentalist rigidity authoritarianism of Jerry Falwell. But the secular press didn’t know the difference. The general line of people in the press that I know didn’t know the difference. And so what they did was to reject Jimmy Carter’s religion and helped to open the way for…helped to, and I’m not over-simplifying this…the arrival of a much tougher, meaner kind of right wing.

HEFFNER: We’re going to have to come back and do another program, of course, because I want to ask you sometime when we have time – we have about 30 seconds – about the meaning of three candidates for President of the United States, each born-again, each putting a kind of emphasis upon a personal religion that we haven’t seen in a long time in this country.

WALL: It would take longer than 30 seconds to distinguish between the faith of those three men and it’s too complicated a subject to get into. But I do know Carter’s faith to be genuine, to be authentic, and to be an over-riding factor in the way that he conducts himself. I don’t know the other two men that well to make that comment.

HEFFNER: Do you think that it was an over-riding factor in his defeat in 1980?

WALL: Well, the way people perceived him. His faith, no, I think his faith sustains him in his defeat. He’s very serene about it now.

HEFFNER: Thanks very much for joining me today Dr. James Wall, Editor of the Christian Century. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too will join us on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your thoughts on the subject and your opinions about what we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of this station.