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The President and the Press

The President-elect was widely considered ill-prepared for his job. He was nominated largely because the Republican party was desperate to win the Presidency. His cabinet choices generally had lengthier resumes and wider government experience than did he. One man in particular so outshone the new president that he sought to become a virtual prime minister.

The new President was affable in private but his humor was occasionally considered inappropriate. His speeches, when he could be persuaded to give them, were notable for their brevity. A long-time associate claimed that the Republican victor didn't like to read; indeed his White House assistants were criticized for carefully limiting the amount of paperwork that went into his office. But his speeches could soar when necessary; his inaugural address was a model plea for national civility and unity.

Abraham Lincoln was widely underestimated. As a one-term congressman, he was the classic Washington outsider. Unlike Secretary of State William H. Seward, he lacked Washington and foreign contacts. Unlike Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, he wasn't known for his sense of decorum. His Western habits and accent were sometimes mocked. When a colleague criticized him for blacking his own boots, the President mildly asked whose boots he should work on instead.

Presidents can surprise in office and none surprised so many as the "Railsplitter" from Illinois. Indeed, some historians continue to underestimate him - taking at face value his claim not to have controlled events but rather to have been controlled by them. The evidence suggests that he was closer to the "Tycoon" or "Dictator" - as his aides respectfully described him behind his back.

Partly, the President managed public opinion by managing the media. Mr. Lincoln spent a lot of time with reporters - picking up information from them and feeding some as well. He also spent a lot of time with prominent editors like John Forney, Alexander McClure, and Thurlow Weed, who also happened to be prominent Republican leaders.

Mr. Lincoln's White House assistants were experienced writers who sometimes moonlighted as newspaper correspondents or editorial writers. They also tried to handle the influential editor of the New York Tribune, and act as liaisons to Henry Raymond, the editor of the New York Times who became chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Another New York editor was sent to spy on Ulysses S. Grant and rewarded with an appointment as an assistant secretary of war. The journalist, Charles A. Dana, later wrote: "During the first winter I spent in Washington in the War Department I had constant opportunities of seeing Mr. Lincoln, and of conversing with him in the cordial and unofficial manner which he always preferred. Not that there was ever any lack of dignity in the man. Even in his freest moments one always felt the presence of a will and of an intellectual power which maintained the ascendancy of his position. He never posed, or put on airs, or attempted to make any particular impression; but he was always conscious of his own ideas and purposes, even in his most unreserved moments."

Noah Brooks, a reporter from California who had known Mr. Lincoln in Illinois, observed that: "Nothing displeased him more than any attempt -- and some fools did attempt it -- at unseemly or undignified familiarity, for his nature was genuinely dignified and manly. Towards all who held appointments in his household he was to the last degree kind, considerate, and even indulgent; but nothing could be further out of the way than to suppose that his kindness of heart degenerated into what is vulgarly called 'good nature.' He was at times, when overworked or weary, even petulant -- so much so as to be difficult of access; was always singularly firm in the assertion of his own fixed views or will, and if just cause of anger aroused him, his anger was apt to be hot and lasting."

Mr. Lincoln's customary openness was often misconstrued, noted another Illinois journalist who came to work at the White House in 1861. William O. Stoddard wrote: "It was curious to observe how invariably each party in every case accused him of being under the undue personal influence of some opposing leader. In one week I culled from leading papers the several assertions, backed up with bitter phrases, that Seward, Blair, Stanton, Halleck, McClellan, Trumbull and those terrible but undefined fellows the 'radical abolitionists' were severally managing the Presidential machine and had the Chief Magistrate under their separate or collective thumbs. The truth is that history has given us few names of men so ready and willing to listen to all, and patiently to hear and weigh the arguments of every side, and at the same time so steadily firm in forming and following their own conclusions as was Abraham Lincoln."

Despite such troubles, Mr. Lincoln seemed genuinely to like spending time with journalists. Some like Noah Brooks and Charles Dana were virtually members of his official family. Other friendly journalists like John L. Scripps and John W. Forney received important posts - postmaster of Chicago and secretary of the Senate, respectively. Some newsmen such as Rockland Island Weekly Register editor Thomas J. Pickett received more modest patronage - a local quartermaster job. Still others like the New York Evening Post's John Bigelow (France), George Fogg (Switzerland) and James S. Pike (Holland) were rewarded with prestigious foreign consulates. Lincoln not used patronage to reward his journalist friends. He used patronage to tempt his critics - specifically New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett. Bennett was deemed so important to the President's reelection in 1864, that the President contemplated dumping a distinguished Republican from the Paris post.

Newspaper editors played an important role throughout Mr. Lincoln's political life. Simeon Francis, editor of the Sangamo Journal, allowed Lincoln to write the paper's editorials when Francis and his wife weren't playing matchmaker between Lincoln and Mary Todd.

Charles Ray and Joseph Medill of the Chicago Press and Tribune took particular interest in advancing Lincoln's senatorial and presidential ambitions - and were never shy about their direct participation in political negotiations. Thurlow Weed, William H. Seward's political alter ego and editor of the Albany Evening Press, played a key role in the 1860 presidential campaign and the politics of post-campaign cabinet making. Henry Raymond of the New York Times served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and chief organizer of the 1864 reelection campaign. And Pennsylvania's Alexander K. McClure doubled as both a newspaper editor and leader of one wing of the Keystone State's Republican Party.

But the press that President Lincoln received as President was surely not adulatory, much less enjoyable. Even "Republican" journals like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the New York Tribune found reason to criticize him. Other periodicals found reasons verbally to immolate him.

Lincoln's relationship with the controversial editor of the New York Tribune was both typical and atypical. Horace Greeley had emerged from the patronage of William Seward's political machine to become a bitter enemy of Seward. That enmity helped Greeley, as a 'delegate' from Oregon to the 1860 Republican National Convention, to torpedo Seward's presidential chances.

Lincoln and Greeley were themselves curiously alike - both gawky and odd in appearances, both largely self-taught, both schooled in farming (though Lincoln abandoned though skills while Greeley prided himself on his agricultural expertise), both strong Whigs, both great admirers of Henry Clay, both skilled word craftsmen, but indifferent businessmen, both knowledgeable about human nature, and both abstemious in their personal habits.

Both men had strong ideas about national policy although Greeley was substantially more prone to self-contradiction than Lincoln. On one subject, Greeley was steadfast - emancipation. Fewer subjects were greater cause for controversy than abolition of slavery. In August 1862, Greeley's wide-read editorial, "The Prayer of 20 Millions," stirred the political pot and stirred the President to reply that "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery." Within a month, Mr. Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1864, Greeley tired of the war's carnage and became and advocate of a negotiated peace. When he tried to pressure Lincoln to conduct negotiations, the President called Greeley's bluff by appointing the editor as the President's emissary to Confederate agents. "I not only intend a sincere effort for peace, but I intend that you shall be a personal witness that is made," Lincoln wrote Greeley in July 1864. A month later, Greeley joined other Republicans in seeking to remove the President as the Republican Party nominee.

Lincoln was caught not between supporters were favored or opposed a negotiated settlement, but between editors who turned their beliefs into editorial gunpowder. By contemporary conventions, there were no journalistic standards during the Civil War; journalism was as vicious as the battlefield and congressional investigating committees.

During the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln endured political treachery, military stalemate, and endless tales of suffering by soldiers and civilians. At times like this, Mr. Lincoln could not simply shut his eyes. He needed to shut out the world. John G. Nicolay, the President's top assistant, had edited a small Illinois paper before he went to work for Mr. Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. He wrote that Mr. Lincoln's "prevailing mood in later years was one of meditation. Unless engaged in conversation, the external world was a thing of minor interest. Not that he was what is called absentminded. He did not forget the spectacles on his nose, and his eye and ear lost no sound or movement about him when he sat writing in his office or passed along the street. But while he noted external incidents, they remained second. His mind was ever busy in reflection. Sometimes he would sit for an hour, still as a petrified image, his soul absent in the wide realm of thought."

Even in recreation, Mr. Lincoln seemed preoccupied. "While playing chess Mr. Lincoln seems to be continually thinking of something else. Those who have played with him say he plays as if it were but a mechanical pastime to occupy his hands while his mind is busy with some other subject," wrote one of the reporters who covered him.

After one vicious assault from the New York Tribune, President Lincoln retold the story of the rural traveler who became lost during a lightning and thunderstorm so violent that it seemed the day of judgment had arrived. After one particularly loud clap of thunder, Mr. Lincoln said the traveler fell to his knees and prayed: 'O, Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise!"

The President's preoccupation was with the war, with the preservation of the Union, the emancipation of black slaves, and the public's support for these policies. White House aide John Hay had been a newspaper correspondent before the Civil War. Hay later became an editor of the New York Tribune. On August 7, 1863, Hay recorded in his diary: "The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene & busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the Cabinet, till now. The most important things he decides & there is no cavil. I am growing more and more firmly convinced that the good of the country absolutely demands that he should be kept where he is till this thing is over. There is no man in the country, so wise so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is."

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