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Political Coverage Has Turned Into Theater Reviews, CBS’ John Dickerson Says in CHF Event

The CHF’s Alison Cuddy introduces John Dickerson (below) and Charles Whitaker. Screencap from YouTube event.

The news media could enhance the work of a President in the White House by asking the right questions during the campaign, John Dickerson, CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent, said during a Chicago Humanities Festival event this week. Instead, “political coverage has turned into theater reviews.” Dickerson appeared in conversation with Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, about Dickerson’s new book, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. The event was livestreamed on YouTube and viewers were able to pose questions via the chat function.

Whitaker asked, what are the requirements for the presidency and why don’t we address those during the campaign?

Dickerson replied that the Framers envisioned a president with limited powers and stature. They didn’t want another king. They wanted an ambitious man (of course), but not too ambitious. An executive with power, but not too much power; that power is supposed to be checked by the other two branches of government.

Early in our history, the President’s main responsibilities were considered to be national security and economic policy. But over the years, the to-do list for the president has ballooned into a sprawling collection of demands that would be difficult for any well-organized executive to manage. And the complexity of the White House environment, West Wing staffing and confirmation of cabinet positions make management even more challenging. The size, power and complexity of the job are out of control.

Presidents also are held responsible for events and issues they can’t control, like foreign aggression, natural disasters and the business cycle, over which the President actually has very little control, despite what some Presidents may claim.

The campaign should be more like a job interview, Dickerson suggested. But journalists focus too much on events of the day and campaign missteps, rather than interrogating the candidates about how they will operate in the White House from a policy and process standpoint. And candidates make it worse by presenting themselves as superheroes, trying to address every need expressed by voters.

Campaigns are all about attacks, Dickerson said, while governing requires building consensus among disparate groups. “The only time there’s change is when wildly unpopular people demand it,” he said in referring to current protests and demands for reforms in the justice system.

The charisma that makes a good candidate is completely different from the organizational skills and level-headed policy acumen needed in the White House, Dickerson observed. But candidates won’t want to answer those operational questions during the campaign because they would reveal their vulnerabilities. There aren’t any prepackaged answers (like “Medicare for all” or “Build the wall”).

Instead of having live debates between candidates, Dickerson suggested, with tongue partly in cheek, candidates should debate on paper. Present the candidates with key questions about operating the White House; tell them to take their time and consider it an open-book exam.

Is the presidential role like an orchestra conductor, Whitaker asked, offering Apple CEO Tim Cook’s analogy to his own job. Or is it comparable to a university president, who may have a variety of academic programs, law and medical schools, a hospital, athletic programs, student activities and housing to orchestrate? Dickerson replied that the politics and partisanship of the presidency as well as the millions of employees and 327 million “customers” make the presidency completely different from any other job.

Dickerson suggested some ways to reimagine the presidency.

Candidates need to develop better transition activities and start much earlier in the campaign, not post-election.

The news media should help voters judge candidates on their ability to operate in the White House, not on how they behave during the campaign.

The problems with the presidency are partly an indictment of the news media, Dickerson repeated, and the expansion of journalism from strictly print media to television (with its requirement for pictures) and the internet over the last 50 or 60 years.

You say we’re a president-obsessed nation, Whitaker asked. What do you mean by that?

We drive all public questions through the presidency, Dickerson said. That lets Congress off the hook. And in the current environment with a divided Congress, the House and Senate must be held responsible for these questions too. The media make it worse by creating a celebrity presidency, so that political coverage has turned into theater reviews.

Whitaker observed that Dickerson had called the current occupant of the White House a “chaos president.” Yes, Dickerson replied, the handling of the pandemic, for example, has been a disaster. It makes clear the importance of truth, clarity and consistency in a public health crisis.

Dickerson’s research involved interviewing past White House staffers plus historians and political scientists. “My purpose was to interrogate history to see how we got where we are.”

The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency (2020, Random House, 656 pages), is available from the Seminary Co-op bookstore, CHF’s partner bookstore, or your favorite bookseller.

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