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Füm & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2&3, May/September 199177 The "First Rough Draft"? Reflections on Presidential Politics, Journalism and History Michael Cornfield I've been asked to talk about how media historians can make better use of declassified documents and other archival materials, as can be found at the nation's presidential libraries and in such widely distributed publications as the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. I'm going to start where Mary Ann Watson left off, with David Susskind. David Susskind and Merle Miller interviewed Harry Truman in the early 1960s for a documentary series. They were unable to sell the series to the networks, however, and Miller wound up publishing the transcripts a decade later as an oral biography, which he called Plain Speaking. The book became a best-seller. It served as the centerpiece for a Truman revival during the mid-1970s.1 Some criticized the book for perpetuating falsehoods beneath a mask of candor. I did my doctoral dissertation on feature stories about President Truman, and when I visited the Truman Library in 1986, I knew there were more oral transcripts in existence. Edward R. Murrow also interviewed Truman after his presidency for television. These interviews took place at Key West a few years before the SusskindMiller interviews. Truman's memory was probably clearer then, and who better to elicit the truth from him than Murrow? The Truman-Murrow conversations were aired in a one-hour program, condensed from nine hours of transcripts. I asked the librarian for the Murrow transcripts, and out came a slender file folder with the script from the one-hour show. "No," I said to her (Elizabeth Safly, I believe), "I've read that there are nine hours' worth of transcripts. Could you please check again?" I sat and waited and a half hour later my heart began to pound, because she rolled out this cart upon which sat a big box that evidently had never been opened. I had found a treasure. I was going to be the first person in who knows how long to revisit a record of a dialogue between the nation's most famous broadcaster and a former President of the United States. I plunged inside-and there was nothing there, except some banal comments about Adlai Stevenson and a few other 1950s figures. Michael Cornfield is Assistant Professor in the Department ofRhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Virginia. 78 Michael Cornfield The experience taught me two lessons. One was that journalists may be better editors than political scholars think. The other-reinforced by the hundreds ofpress texts I sifted through during a week in Independence-was that journalism alone provides few clues to the interplay of forces about which political scientists seek general knowledge. I returned home with material that made little sense to me except as a collection of news stories and commentaries that belonged to the same genre of popular literature. The idea that genres exist in a culture's news just as they do in a culture's fictions became the core of my dissertation.2 But I hadn't learned anything about the powers of the press in relation to those of the presidency. And I had no scoop, no discovery that revised or confirmed Truman's current reputation as a "near-great" president. Five years later, I remained curious about the contrast between public affairs as the news represents it-call that "current events coverage"~and public affairs as it is depicted by participants and scholars in works of political history. Surely there was something to learn in the contrast of descriptions. I started out again, and I chose as my starting point an aphorism coined by a man who used to own a newspaper in this town. Phil Graham once said (and journalists at the Post and elsewhere love to repeat it) that journalism is "the first rough draft of history."3 White House correspondents endeavor to narrate current events with limited access to presidential thoughts and activities, under severe deadline constraints, and in the shadow of the mystique the office casts over their readers. Given these imperfect conditions, what kinds of polishing gets...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 77-82
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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