It occurred to me yesterday, as I breathlessly followed the course of President Trump's illness, that this was the first time since 1955 that I had lived through the experience of a president who clearly might be mortally ill--as distinct from one who had been shot. On September 24 of that year, President Eisenhower, then vacationing in Denver, Colorado, had a serious heart attack. I was only 8, but living in a very political household, I remember it well. Then, yesterday evening, I opened up nytimes.com and found the main page composed entirely of stories related to Trump's illness and its implications. I decided to look at the New York Times for September 25, 1955, and compare it to today's front page. The results are quite interesting.
This morning the front page includes five news stories and a timeline of the President's last week that takes up half the space of the page. All of them are directly related to the President's illness. The right-hand side of the page begins with a standard news account. Under that comes an account of the president's movements over the last week or so, focusing on how he might have spread the virus, and under that comes a story pessimistically assessing the president's own risk factors for serious illness. In column 1, the top story, a "political memo," headlines, "Now There's No Spinning Away the Pandemic's Toll," followed by a story of the possible effects of the illness on the campaign.
The contrast with 65 years ago could hardly be more striking. To begin with, we have to face the difference in scope in the front page then and now. This morning's has only six different stories, while the 1955 one has eleven. Three of the eleven relate to the President's heart attack. The lead, by Russell Baker (later the Times's comic op-ed columnist), gives the medical facts, and gently bur firmly made clear that Press Secretary James Hagerty and the attending physicians were trying to downplay their seriousness. The second, immediately under the first, by James "Scotty" Reston, the lead political reporter, assessed the heart attack's impact on the coming 1956 election, and suggested that it was quite likely that Eisenhower would not run. The third dealt with Vice President Nixon's reception of the news. All those aspects of the story remained front page news for days afterwards. Meanwhile, however, the rest of the world went on and the Times continued to report it.
In column one on September 26 was a story about the fall of President Juan Peron of Argentina, who was about to leave his country for Paraguay. Underneath that was the news that the French government had withdrawn an important official from Morocco--still a French colony--because he opposed reforms. Columns 2-3, coincidentally, were taken up with the first installment of the serialization of former President Truman's memoirs. (I remember the later serialization of Ike's memoirs, and I wonder when a major newspaper last printed such a serialization.) In column 4, reporter Elie Abel told us that the US, Australia and New Zealand had agreed to maintain their Pacific defenses against Communism, and in column 5, US government sources revealed that the USSR had tested a new nuclear weapon. Lower down the page, the UN reporter told us that the Soviets were busily courting "newly independent lands in Africa and Asia and . . .national groups now seeking independence." The major domestic political story, placed below the fold, dealt with a political fight over government farm price supports. And lastly, at the bottom of the page, New York's baseball fans learned that Leo Durocher, who had managed the Giants to the world championship just a year earlier--his second pennant in four years--had stepped down from his post, replaced by Bill Rigney.
What does this rather striking difference prove?
To some extent, it reflects differences in circumstances. We are in the midst of a presidential election in which President Trump is trailing in the polls. More importantly, his illness is not simply a personal matter--he has caught the virus that has dominated the news for the last six months and become the major issue in the campaign. That he himself has consistently downplayed its significance and expressed skepticism about precautionary moves only makes the story juicier. That, however, is only part of the story.
Today's front page evidences Donald Trump's success--not as a president, but as a publicist. This man, who has been obsessed with publicity for more than 40 years, has successfully turned himself into the focus of all our attention to an extent unmatched by any previous president in my lifetime. His symbiotic relationship with the media, which he carefully cultivated as a developer and television star, is more intense than ever. Like the children of an abusive parent, many of us on all sides of the political spectrum have turned him into the main focus of our emotions. Should his illness prove fatal, I predict an unprecedented round of national confusion--especially since Mike Pence will most certainly not be able to emerge as a strong leader in the way that Lyndon Johnson did after the death of JFK. We will have lost our rudder, and Joe Biden will have also lost his biggest campaign issue--the need to get a functioning adult into the White House.
Yet the two front pages also show, I think, that our obsession with Trump is just one part of our more general obsession with ourselves and our own feelings. The complete absence of any foreign news from today's front page shows how little we have come to care about events elsewhere--or even about foreign reaction to a serious illness of our President. (There is no such story even inside the paper.) The Cold War had many negative consequences, but it also convinced us all that we had to pay attention to political events on every continent, which the average citizen no longer does. Yesterday was a milestone of sorts in critical bipartisan negotiations about a new economic relief package, but that didn't make the front page either. Without Donald Trump, it seems to me, the nation's leading newspapers wouldn't know what to write about it, and tens of hundreds of millions of citizens wouldn't know what to think about.
The experience of the Second World War--in which Eisenhower had of course played a key role--and of the Cold War had given the nation the sense that we were all part of critical enterprises, and the New Deal had given us all a common interest in our economic well being. All that has now been lost. Should Trump die or lose the election, we shall have a chance to begin again. Nothing, however, is going to give the nation the sense of common values and purpose that it had in 1955 any time soon. I can only hope that some younger politicians will recognize the importance of restoring it and start thinking in long term, strategic terms about how it might be done.