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Anne Compton and John Dickerson Speak at JFK Library

Gerard Frasca '17, Features Editor

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Wednesday Dec. 7th: John Dickerson speaks with Anne Compton at the JFK library, one of many stops promoting his book “Wistlestop.” Anne Compton, as described by Steve Rostein, executive director of the Robert F Kennedy foundation, is the “Michael Phelps of Reporting.” Holding 5 honorary degrees and having covered 10 presidential campaigns, Anne Compton recently retired from ABC news. The two sit down for a conversation on politics and media, with especial attention to this coming election and it’s parallels with those of the past.

John begins with speaking about Andrew Jackson, a presidential nominee that was at one time considered to be not serious. The Jackson campaign, as John points out, was taken as a mere joke as Jackson’s life was the antithesis of politics in the US at the time: an entity ran almost entirely by the elite.

John and Anne agree that the general public has a tendency to consider elections to be incomparable to what came before. In that way, we almost separate ourselves from the past and thwart historical parallels.

John moves on to talk about George Bush senior’s 1988 campaign following his vice presidency under the Reagan administration. This election, as John points out, epitomized the public’s association with masculinity and the presidency. Dan Rather’s interview with George Bush quickly turned into a combative argument. Bush brought up the 6 minute period in which Rather walked off the set of CBS news. Bush depicted himself as being tough and outspoken, thus shedding his vice-presidential character.

This trend played a critical role in the Bush Dukakis race – one fought on the grounds of symbolism, nationalism, and, above all, masculinity. The Bush campaign attempted to draw into question Dukakis’ masculinity in multiple instances, such as the infamous photograph of Dukakis in the tank, which ran during the 1988 World Series. The ad essentially ruined the Dukakis campaign and was the subject of many degrading headlines, including the New York Time’s which read “Macho Mike Dukakis” the following day.

Masculinity, it could be argued, played a huge role in the 2016 election, with Hillary Clinton being the first female presidential candidate. John would argue the public’s desire to have a president that embodies masculine ideals is a major reason for Trump’s win. Trump’s irreverent style almost directly parallels that of Bush.

Anne goes on to discuss the public’s negative response to both candidates – a characteristic indicative of this election. She asks if there has ever been an election in the past that elicited such negative responses, to which John replies: 1884. The election of 1884 between Grover Cleveland and James G. BlaIne was marked by a almost universal hatred of both candidates. Cleveland was targeted for having a child out of wedlock while Blaine was targeted for a variety of scandals, among them the Mulligan letters scandal, in which Blaine allegedly influenced legislators in favor of railroad companies in which he had bonds invested. Both campaigns were focussed almost entirely on personality and morality, not unlike the 2016 presidential election.

Anne brings up the election of 1800, one marked by bitter partisanship of the press. The “revolution of 1800,” in which Jefferson and Adams ran a contentious and bitter race, featured slandering and aggressive adds from publications bribed by each campaign. John notes that in 1800, campaigning was considered not virtuous because it was widely considered to be a technique for merely earning votes through empty promises.

John and Anne go on to discuss the appeal of Trump’s campaign promise “Make America Great Again.” John says Trump’s slogan has a “gut-level, emotional appeal.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign was far less popularized, and had little to no identifiable message: “History teaches us so much of where we’ve been and what we are”

John ends on speaking to the importance of fact checking and journalistic integrity. In the digital age – one marked by a hurry to publish stories – well written, accurate journalism is hard to come by. Anne and John together encourage the audience to seek our and support news honesty and bipartisanship in journalism.

Perhaps the most memorable statement from the night embodies everything we must remember in political discourse and journalism. “The press should talk of politics in the way physicists talk about physics” John says. Journalism by no means predicts the future. In this past election especially, we wanted to believe that we knew the answer even if we didn’t; we’d curve data and embellish liberal-partisan stories because we wanted to believe in a Hillary Clinton presidency. Physicians, John says, need to understand an unknown; they’re able to embrace uncertainty and gradually come to a definitive conclusion. Journalism is not a business of immediate answers, John ultimately states. “We’re in a business of surprise.”



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The Eyes and Ears of BC High.
Anne Compton and John Dickerson Speak at JFK Library