What if something like CNN and modern communications were around in early 1945? What if the rules of presidential news coverage were then as they are now? And what if such a mythical CNN hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt as much as it despises Donald Trump, then as right-wing as it is now hard left? How would the daily news in a mythical 1945 treat a now-iconic FDR? What would the country have thought of its president?
In the manner that we’ve learned that Donald Trump supposedly eats double servings of fast food and gulps down a dozen diet sodas a day, we instead might hear similar CNN “exclusives” about presidential diet and health, either from “unknown” sources in the White House or “fake news” exaggerations of rumor and innuendo.
Wolf Blitzer might give us a news bulletin something like this: “CNN in an exclusive report has learned that President Roosevelt is a sick, maybe dying, man. But the true nature of his health has long been covered up, most notably in last year’s election and is even now more dishonesty hidden. CNN has learned that the conspiracy of silence among the president’s family, his staff, and his doctors is long-standing, scandalous—and, in this reporter’s view, dangerous.”
“Sources tell me that the president’s blood pressure routinely hits 240 over 140. He has lost 40 pounds. Some sources tell CNN that the president suffers from chronic sinus and urinary infections. He may be battling skin cancer. CNN is now learning that the president could never walk or even stand up on his own.”
“That image of a robust president was also inaccurate—the fiction of collusion that for years has hidden the true extent of the president’s paralysis from the American people. CNN has also learned that President Roosevelt has been absent from the White House for weeks at a time and has been too ill to work at his desk. Yet he continues to chain smoke and drink a series of stiff drinks each evening, a habit dating back to Prohibition before he was president.”
“As one source put it to CNN, ‘He is incorrigible. We try to get the president to eat healthier food and stop smoking and drinking. No dice. He is like a child, scarfing down eggs, honey biscuits, sugary gelatin, and cottage cheese, smiling while he mixes martinis for his buddies and puffing away on that infernal cigarette holder. Does he want to die eating that stuff?’”
“CNN has also contacted a number of medical experts at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington. One told us off the record, ‘He should never have run for reelection. I doubt he makes it ’til May. A sick man like that has no business running the war.’”
The President is a Cheater
If the 21st-century rules of etiquette prevailed in 1945, the CNN of that era would no doubt inform all 140 million Americans about the intimacies of FDR’s sex life.
Here might be Jim Acosta’s evening lowdown: “Our sources also report that president of the United States has long conducted a number of extramarital affairs. To this correspondent what I was told seems shocking, but here it is nonetheless. Now instead of the past ‘Missy’ and ‘Daisy’ in FDR’s bedroom, there is this ‘Lucy’ again.”
“For all practical purposes, the president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt long ago have lived separate lives, despite their public posturing. We are told the current object of presidential affection is once again socialite and former personal secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt, Lucy Mercer Rutherford. She seems to be running the White House, if not the country. I’ve been told by a number of key administration insiders that the president’s own daughter Anna has moved into the White House and serves as the go-between for Lucy and the president—to the furor of her mother who feels betrayed by her own daughter.”
“CNN has also contacted one unnamed Republican senator who expressed outrage in confirming Washington’s best-kept secret. He said, ‘We all know what is going on. It’s a panty show up there. The president is incorrigible. He’s always been a serial womanizer. It is not enough that we hear that he is nearly incapacitated and was taken to the cleaners at Yalta, but now we learn he sure had enough time to conduct an affair in the White House!’
“Another unnamed aide put it more bluntly: ‘The guy could drop dead any minute and yet he uses the last bit of his energy to sneak around with that Mercer woman. What a con.’”
The President is a Sick Man
So what would CNN conclude about Roosevelt’s last year in office? Impending defeat of Nazi Germany? A collapsing imperial Japan? A roaring economy? Hardly.
Instead, the headlines would be juicy and slanted, designed to confirm the dismal presidential portraits above.
Anderson Cooper might inform us: “CNN has been told by a number of sources close to the president that he is scarcely able to sit upright and talk. Roosevelt has hardly even spoken to his own vice president, Harry Truman. We are now learning from a number of key aides that Democratic insiders forced Truman on the ticket in fears that Vice President Henry Wallace would likely be president this year. They supposed that Roosevelt either is going to be soon removed for health reasons or is already incapacitated.”
“CNN has informally surveyed a number of top historians and political analysts to discover whether FDR’s health and personal life have affected the current conduct of the war. A Yale psychiatrist put it bluntly: ‘He’s in denial. A total fantasy world. I’m not so worried that he is sick, but that he deludes himself into thinking he’s well. He needs an intervention.’”
“One Harvard expert told CNN: ‘Well, we lost everything at Yalta. Just turned it over to Stalin. So much for free elections in Eastern Europe. But how was a sick president going to know how that busybody Alger Hiss and that gang were working for the other side? And now FDR is mad at Uncle Joe and feels betrayed? Well, what did they expect? Uncle Joe told us off the record he ‘pitied’ our president. Sad that a half-dead FDR is throwing away a decade of a pretty damn good record.’”
Anderson Cooper might continue: “Another high-ranking general expressed disgust at the president’s hidden agendas. Although CNN was unable to confirm his charges, he insisted that there is a ‘big boom’ on the way. He would not elaborate but claimed that a new super bomb may soon be dropped—and that Vice President Harry Truman hasn’t a clue about it, despite $1 billion already spent off-budget and missing from the public record.
“The general also ridiculed Roosevelt’s direction of the war. ‘He might have been on top of things in 41 or 42 but not now. Did any heads roll for those disasters at the Bulge or the Hürtgen? Whose bright idea is it now to barge head on into Okinawa or park the fleet off that damned island with all those suicide bombers in the sky? There will be hell to pay when no one at the top is in charge. Okinawa will make Iwo look like a picnic.’”
The Lesson is One of Degree
Back to 2018. Note that Roosevelt was an effective wartime president. He probably should not have run in 1944, but the voters apparently had legitimate considerations of continuity of wartime command, as well as an appreciation for a booming economy and near-defeated enemies. If a CNN circa 1944 had reported on Roosevelt as it now does Trump, FDR might never have been elected to a fourth term.
My point is not whether the news of Roosevelt’s health, sex life, or ability to do the job should have been reported, or if it had been, would have been largely accurate.
Rather, the lesson is one of degree. What would have been broadcast to the nation by CNN would foremost have reflected the ratings-driven network’s biases and thus been warped to achieve the political agenda of discrediting the president whom CNN despised, and nullifying his leadership—rather than letting the voting public have unadulterated facts without editorializing to make informed decisions.
The same experiment could have been repeated with an entirely out-of-control libido of JFK in 1962, the titillation overshadowing his legislative and foreign policy records. Would we like to know that JFK deflowered virgins in the presidential bed or that he faced down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis? For those of you whose answer is “both,” then we surely did not get the former story along with the latter.
Not a Medieval Morality Play
Reporting on any president should not be just 24/7 scandal-mongering or monotonous editorializing, but rather first informing whether his efforts hurt or improve the country. A president is not the sum total of his worst moments, any more than Barack Obama should have been nightly assessed mostly on his bouts of inanity and sloppy talk—ridiculing the Special Olympics, confusing the Falklands with Maldives, calling Mitt Romney a “bullshitter,” ridiculing the Tea Party with “teabagger” sexual smears, urging his supporters to “get in their faces,” not to “take a knife to a gunfight” and “punish our enemies,” or unleashing his aides to demean war-veteran and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” and “coward” speaking “aspergery,” a tasteless reference to Asperger Syndrome.
There is no doubt that FDR always had health problems, led a far more unhealthy life than did the nonsmoking, nondrinking Trump, and liked to enjoy what his massive inherited wealth provided, as much as does the billionaire Donald Trump.
But the worst of FDR was not the whole FDR. A right-wing 1945 version of CNN, mutatis mutandis, would have driven a president out of office and reduced a distinguished record to a gossip sheet of a duplicitous and reckless adulterer. Presidential reporting is not a medieval morality play in which an irate CNN chooses sinners to be damned to hell and the virtuous to be deified.
The reason an ill, secretive, and adulterous FDR of poor habits and failing judgment has a stellar presidential record today is, at least in part, because the media of 1945 never covered him or his impressive achievements in the way that an obsessed CNN of 2018 covers Trump.