NYT On Why Journalists Like to Compare Presidents

Did anybody think to ask journalists?

The New York Times’s Peter Baker had a piece in Sunday’s paper dealing with an issue close to many hearts at the CJR office—that reliable pundit go-to, the presidential comparison. You know the kind of thing: columns and covers suggesting Clinton’s having a Carter moment or that Obama’s walking in Reagan’s footsteps, about to take a Bush-senior-stumble, only to rise—Clinton-style—with one of those Kennedy-esque orations he’s prone to. Stuff like this. Or this. Or pretty much every segment of Hardball.

Baker attempts to get to the bottom of the presidential comparison phenomenon and uncover its remarkable allure to the political reporter and pundit. He lists a bunch of examples—from a New Yorker cover showing Obama as Washington to a National Review cover showing Carter as Obama, Shepard Fairey-style—before asking a bunch of presidential academic-types for their theories.

If you were to get into the comparative spirit and compare the Baker piece to another kind of story, you might think of it as one of those new science staples parsing out why women are attracted to tall, athletic, broad-shouldered types. And the reasons Baker comes up with for presidential comparisons don’t differ, at a basic level, from what you might unearth in such a story: it’s got to do with instinct.

Of course, pundits aren’t drawn to a Lincoln-Obama comparison because the framing will better help them fend off any pesky mammoths that should come stomping by their cave entrance. Their instincts are less primitive than that, more ingrained by education and practice, built and bolstered by years of study, TV talk-time, and repetition. Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, suggests to Baker that it’s natural for political writers to compare and contrast because so many were history majors. Thus, when pontificating, instinct leads them to predecessors.

Naturally, he, too, has read many books on presidents. “The key,” he said, “is studying the similarities and differences and understanding that history is informative but not determinative.”

Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Johnson Presidential Library, says it might have more to do with another instinct that we all in fact share with political writers: the desire to sound smart, informed, and not make an ass of ourselves on the box.

“In my view,” he said, “pundits often make comparisons to previous presidents because it allows them to sound authoritative without putting forth a great deal of thought.” He added that he has been among those who have made such comparisons.

All interesting and valid ideas, but my instinct is to go with the last of these musings Baker himself makes in a nut graf grappling with why comparisons are so attractive regarding our current president (our emphasis):

What makes us so eager to find historical parallels for Mr. Obama? Why do we take one president and try to fit him into the mold of another? Maybe it is because more than halfway through his term, we just cannot agree on who Mr. Obama really is. Or maybe it is the same public fascination with historical personalities that lately has filled best-seller lists with presidential biographies. Or maybe it is just a surplus of shallow punditry in an era with endless hours of airtime and Internet space to fill.

Baker’s piece is worth a read, if only for the way in which he lays out the various and often conflicting comparisons between Obama and his predecessors that have appeared in coverage, and the way those comparisons have tied in with different points of the Obama presidency. We see examples of these kinds of comparisons often, and media critics often note them, but for the most part they come at us somewhat scattershot: a Time cover here, a Politico column there. When synthesized by Baker, it’s really quite eye-opening to see where they fit in the presidential narrative.

After last year’s Republican midterm victories, the Clinton comparisons surged, and Mr. Obama himself said he was reading the historian Taylor Branch’s book on Mr. Clinton, “The Clinton Tapes.” (Mr. Branch last week deemed the analogies the product of a passive electorate and cynical era in which “politics is reduced to a dangerously complacent form of entertainment.”)

As political tides shifted again, the analogies turned to Reagan, who “posed” next to Mr. Obama on another Time cover, making the argument that the 44th president could be for Democrats what the 40th president was for Republicans — a comparison stoked by Mr. Obama, who has praised Reagan as a “transformative” president.

One thing missing, though, in this examination of why journalists and pundits are drawn to a certain style of reporting, is the input of journalists themselves. Of the seven people Baker quotes in the piece, only one, Ronald Brownstein, the editorial director of the National Journal Group, is directly involved in journalism of the type that Baker is examining (others do give input as pundits, but are historians, authors, and communications directors/managers). Baker wrings some interesting insights from Brownstein—“At its worst, that effort becomes like the parody of Hollywood pitch meetings—you know, this is like ‘Miami Vice’ meets ‘The Smurfs,’ or something”—but the piece would have benefited from more input from folks in similar positions. What does Politico’s top brass say is the value of presidential comparisons? Or Time’s Michaels Duffy and Scherer, who brought us the Obama/Reagan cover story? A bit of self-reflection would have been handy here.

It might have come from Baker himself. He writes at one point: “In full disclosure, I wrote one of the first articles making the Johnson analogy as Afghanistan decisions loomed. My wife, Susan Glasser, editor in chief of Foreign Policy, published one of the first magazine covers comparing him to Mr. Carter. (Intriguingly, it was not Mr. Obama who objected, but Mr. Carter.)” And yet, while Baker diligently grinds the cogs to convince us that the phenomenon of comparison has reached new heights with Obama—though, this might also be a matter of the number and constancy of the media outlets who make such comparisons—he does not pause to press himself on what he found valuable in measuring the president against Johnson. We get a number of suggestions, in the form of questions and musings. But if the presidential comparison is a useful trope, he could come out and tell us why, as someone who has employed it. If not, he could explain his reasoning. This might have been a more direct route to the crux of the piece.

In a political column about political writers making comparisons that are often made in the paper for which the author is writing, a little more naval-gazing from Baker might have pushed the meta needle off the dial, true. But it would have also pushed the article to be something more than an diverting he-said, he-said, and then she-said piece about the journalistic method. We might have gotten a smart political journalist seriously examining his own.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,