When another journalist attacked William Howard Russell for having misreported the battle of Bull Run, Russell dismissed his critic as “revolting mucus.”
In 1862 the Chicago Times deemed President Abraham Lincoln an “irresolute, vacillating imbecile.” To the Charleston Mercury he was “the Orang-Outang at the White House.”
The New York Herald considered James Polk “ridiculous, contemptible and forlorn” — and Polk was the candidate whom the Herald endorsed.
Contemporary readers dismayed by the coarseness of our public debate, in other words, and fearful that 2015 can only see a sharpening of partisanship may find some comfort in the recently published “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion” by Harold Holzer.
Holzer, a longtime Lincoln scholar, tells a story, resonating in many ways, of a press riven by partisanship and desperately competitive for eyeballs — or circulation, as it was known a century and a half ago.
Changing technology — faster presses, the telegraph, expanding railroad networks — let newspapers reach many more people and deliver far more timely news. That in turn birthed the 19th-century equivalent of campaign “war rooms.”
“Politicians now routinely subjected their opponents to ever-more-rapid response in the hope of attracting daily coverage,” Holzer writes. “The press obligingly reported their increasingly heated debates within days, even hours.”
When the Mexican-American war ended, newspapers continued relitigating the decision to fight, stoking the bitterness that helped sell papers. Even during the Civil War, partisanship trumped unity.
Thus, to the pro-Republican Philadelphia Press, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was “immortal.” To the pro-Democratic Chicago Times, it was “silly flat and dishwatery.” (The three leading newspapers of the day, meanwhile — the Times, Herald and Tribune of New York City — all missed the significance of Lincoln’s brief remarks, concentrating on the two-hour keynote speech of the then-famous orator Edward Everett.)
Throughout his career, Lincoln understood the urgency, and difficulty, of using the press, especially since during election season presidential candidates were expected to stay home and not campaign.
“Public sentiment is everything,” he said during his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, and he went to great lengths to shape that sentiment — including writing editorials himself, anonymously.
As president he spent hours tending to the prodigious egos of important newspaper editors and cultivating the goodwill of energetic young reporters.
“No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper, and escape destruction,” Lincoln told a visitor, “unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”
When he read critical editorials, his face “flushed up with indignation.” He kept a file of “Villainous articles.”
Still, Holzer concludes, Lincoln managed to trump the editors by appealing, in honest, passionate, accessible public letters and speeches, over their heads. Long before fireside chats and Twitter accounts, Lincoln found ways to cut out the intermediary.
Optimists will come away heartened by this book. After all, American voters were sufficiently informed by the newspapers of their day, however imperfect, to elect the right man in 1860 and reelect him four years later. The nation survived all the name-calling and nasty partisanship.
Pessimists might recall that it survived only by means of a calamitous civil war.
I came away oddly cheered that, even in our problems and failings, we are less original than we may think.
Fred Hiatt is the Washington Post’s editorial page editor.