Sunday, July 6, 2008

Presidential Press Secretaries: An Interview with Linda Levin

The first presidential press secretary, Steve Early, is the focus of a new book. The author is Linda Lotridge Levin, Professor of Journalism and Chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Levin was kind enough to respond to some email questions about the book, which can be purchased at any local or online retailer, or direct from www.prometheusbooks.com, The toll free order hotline is 800-421-0351.

What inspired you to write about Early?

I got the idea for this book from my daughter, a senior history major at Mount Holyoke College. She was taking a seminar on "The Biography" with Dr. Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Dr. Ellis asked his students to select someone in American history and write a 40-page biography of him or her. When my daughter was in high school, she had taken a history of American journalism course with me at my university, and she recalled Stephen T. Early so she chose him as her topic. She found very little material on him, but she did find enough to write her paper. When he returned the paper to her, Dr. Ellis said, "Someone should write a book about him." She told me, and I did. It took me ten years to research and write the book. I spent part of those summers and some of my breaks from the university working there, too. It was an amazing experience.

What surprises did you find along the way?

I had no idea of the breadth of materials related to Steve Early and FDR and many others who worked in the administration in the FDR Library. I did not realize that Early and FDR were more than just president and press secretary. They met in 1912 when Early was covering the Democratic convention in Baltimore for the United Press wire service (later UPI), and Roosevelt was there as a delegate from New York state. The two struck up a friendship that lasted until FDR died in April, 1945. When FDR became under secretary of the navy under Woodrow Wilson, Early, now a reporter for the Associated Press, covered the War Department which included navy where his and FDR's friendship flourished. Years later, Early said that the assistant secretary made for great news copy. I also did not realize what a distinguished journalism career Early had with the Associated Press and then with Paramount (moviereels) News before he went to the White House. It was as an AP reporter covering President's Harding's trip to Alaska and the west coast that Early was the first reporter to learn of and report on Harding's death in San Francisco.

How did Early benefit from the introduction of newsreels, radio and other new mediums during the FDR presidency ?

It was serendipitous that Early and FDR went into the White House when media technology had developed to the point where they were able to utilize it to such a great advantage. When Roosevelt was governor of New York in the late 1920's, he discovered he liked to speak on the radio, and he was effective doing it. In addition, Early had developed a wide array of journalism contacts during his years at United Press and the Associated Press. In World War I, Lieutenant Early was a top editor of the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, where he worked along side men who later became leaders in the field of journalism and the arts, men such as Adolph Ochs Jr. of the New York Times family; Alexander Woolcott, the prominent playwright; Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker magazine, and Grantland Rice, one of the greatest sports writers of his day. In 1920, Early served as the advance man for FDR's failed campaign for vice president on the Democratic ticket. Early would travel around the country a couple of train stops ahead of FDR, and he would set up meetings for Roosevelt at newspapers and radio stations in the towns. In this role, Early got to know many media people whom he later would turn to for coverage of the New Deal. As the head of Paramount's newsreel bureau in Washington, Early became acquainted with a number of people in radio and newsreels and learned about the technology. Thus, it was inevitable that the charismatic Roosevelt and the journalist Early would choose to take full advantage of every bit of media technology available and all those journalism contacts Early--and FDR--had made over the years.


Why do you believe FDR was the first president to recognize the value of public relations in the White House?

I'm not sure he was the first president to recognize this, but he was the first president who really enjoyed (at least until the war when censorship was in place and he was traveling a lot to secret wartime meetings) the give and take of a press conference and speaking into a radio microphone. In addition, he was the first president to have Steve Early as his press secretary. The chapter in the book where FDR and Early go to the White House is called "Launching the Juggernaut," and there's no doubt a juggernaut could not have rolled forward without FDR and Early working as a team. Early understood how the media worked, and FDR needed the media to promote his New Deal policies to the nation.

What do you see as the differences and parallels between Early and the modern era's White House Communications team?

Most press secretaries before and after Steve Early have not enjoyed a long-time friendship with the president before he took office. Often the press secretary has been a journalist the president as a politician knew professionally. As I wrote in my book, because Early came to his job when the country was in the midst of the worst economic depression in its history and on its heels a cataclysmic war, it would have been easy for Early and Roosevelt simply to close their doors and ignore the press as presidents before them had done and continue to do. Another difference is that today the president has a much bigger staff and a larger more complex government to run. This frequently has left him with less time to spend in briefings with his press secretary who, unlike Steve Early, is constantly being asked to feed a 24-hour news cycle beast. The result is that contemporary press secretaries seem to have a higher burn-out rate. We probably never again will see an Early who stayed on for 12 years in the White House.

Why was Early so successful as a presidential press secretary?

Because he had been a part of the news media and understood how it worked, he and FDR immediately decided the president would hold twice-weekly press conferences that were timed so reporters could meet their newspaper (and later radio) deadlines. These wildly popular press conferences continued through the war years, although because Roosevelt traveled to war conferences, he did not meet as often with the reporters. Early decided he would hold a daily press conference, and he continued them until the end. Early also instituted an open-door policy for the news media. One result was that Early had a strong relationship with the press. For instance, when he asked photographers never to take pictures of FDR in a wheelchair or being lifted into and out of his car, the photographers readily agreed. This could never happen today in the all-pervasive news media where television in particular regularly captures the utterances and movements of public officials. There are a number of other instances of that strong relationship between Early and the press that I have detailed in my book.

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