What Clinton and Trump can learn from Eisenhower

Presidential transparency
Presidential transparency 01:32

In 1955 when president Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack, his staff told the press he had simply “suffered a digestive upset in the night.” Twelve hours later, the president’s team told the truth. White House reporters were furious.

To repair the situation, James Hagerdy, Eisenhower’s press secretary drowned the press in information about Ike’s health. James Deakin begins his wonderful book “Straight Stuff” about the relationship between the White House and the press with this story: “He gave them information they wanted. He gave them information they should not have wanted but did want. He gave them information they did not want at all. He loved them to death.”

There was so much information about Eisenhower’s convalescence that the president’s physician reported that he had a successful bowel movement. This, according to Deakin, put the the Associated Press in a bind. Were they going to report this development? It’s not the kind of thing we discuss at the dinner table -- or it wasn’t in 1955 anyway. The Associated Press decided that because it was official news, the country should be informed that the president was regular.

Deakin cites Hagerdy’s “full hangout” as a model of press management. It minimized worries about Eisenhower’s fitness for the job in a second term and quelled press anger over the initial lack of transparency.

Hillary Clinton’s early departure from the 9/11 ceremony in New York put health and transparency back into the campaign conversation. The Eisenhower story highlights two of its important aspects: transparency in the moment and transparency in the aftermath. What do you do when no one is watching, and what do you do when everyone is? 

Presidential race tightens 05:36

The Clinton campaign has admitted it “could have done better” keeping reporters informed about Clinton’s condition before and after her curbside slide. Since the event, Clinton’s doctor released a letter detailing her non-contagious pneumonia diagnosis and treatment. It also noted that Clinton has been campaigning through a serious sinus condition and ear infection for the last several months. (This is no fun when you fly as much as a candidate does; my version of the same condition in 2008 caused a rupture in my eardrum and grounded me for three months) Clinton’s report also includes a CT scan taken last March that showed no abnormalities in the brain. Donald Trump, on the other hand, visited the “Dr. Oz Show” and read out some of his medical information. His doctor later released a letter too. It was disclosed that Trump is overweight and taking Cholesterol medication.

We throw around the word transparency a lot in campaigns. What do we really mean? Transparency can mean access to information about a particular issue-- like a candidate’s health or the information in their tax returns-- which helps us understand if they are fit for the office, but transparency in a campaign also refers to a candidate’s habits of openness. That goes to the heart of governing: how tolerant is a candidate of the itchy interruptions of democracy like the public’s right to know what’s being done in its name? If a candidate is shut off to those demands, how open will they be to other nuisances like contrary opinions or facts that challenge their views?

Presidential campaigns don’t always replicate the challenges of governing. When it comes to the issue of transparency they do. In campaigns, the public and the press demand inconvenient things of candidates-- tax returns, medical reports, policy specifics. Those demands clash with the candidate’s self-interest: the desire to control the message and hide unflattering or contradictory information. How much a candidate accepts the campaign demands and meets them gives us a read about how likely they will be to accept the demands of the presidency. 

Hillary Clinton entered the 2016 race with a transparency deficit. She set up a private email server for all of her State Department communication, that hid her from public information requests. She only turned over what she’d sequestered when asked. When she did turn over her emails her team (not public officials) determined what the public could see and couldn’t. Clinton was neither transparent in the original act nor in the after-the-fact disclosure. (Some of those involved are still not talking.)

The Clinton email story highlights one of the reasons voters should demand shows of transparency from all candidates in a campaign as a test of whether a candidate has those instincts or can be pressured to be more transparent. Public office pushes officials to be opaque, if for no other reason than efficiency. That’s the case Colin Powell made when he explained to Clinton why she would want a private channel for communication. Use of a personal email account “vastly improved communications within the State Department,” he wrote.

(Clinton’s critics charge that she has a special penchant for secrecy, but the fact that Secretary Powell suggested Clinton set up a private system shows that some desire for secrecy comes with the job.)

Donald Trump was a private citizen before the campaign. He had far different transparency requirements than Hillary Clinton. Still, he made an art of keeping things cloudy. He impersonated his own publicity agent. In “Art of the Deal” he boasted about his talent for exaggeration. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

That act is undermined by transparency because facts and sunlight undo the brag. In depositions, Trump has explained that he determines the value of his companies based on his interpretations -- how he’s feeling -- not traditional accounting. David Farenthold of the Washington Post has found that the Trump Foundation lacks transparency and its claims don’t match the facts.

Voters will have to make a determination whether it is unfair to hold pre-candidate Trump to the standard of a public official. (That’s different than whether the Trump Foundation broke the law, which is what the New York attorney general has started to investigate).

There are ways, however, for voters to take a reading of Trump-the-candidate’s openness instinct based on the standard transparency demands of a campaign. Trump has not released his tax returns -- as Hillary Clinton and several decades of presidential candidates have. He was slower to release his medical information than Clinton. He also does not allow reporters into his fundraisers as Clinton does at some of hers, and he bragged Thursday about leaving his press corps behind.

Voters are being denied information that might help them make a determination about Donald Trump. They are also getting a chance to evaluate how much pressure Trump feels to be open with the public. He has not shown much openness in these areas, just as he has been opaque about his policy for defeating ISIS. When Donald Trump draws the curtains in the private sector and in his campaign, how open is he likely to be as president?

When Donald Trump reveals details, it can highlight the benefits of openness. On “Face the Nation” he said he would not let lobbyists or major donors work in his administration. That was an act of transparency: he’s telling voters specifically what he’ll do, so they can make a judgment, but he’s also putting himself on the record. If Trump goes back on his word after promising so often to weed out the special interests, everyone will know it and judge him accordingly.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have transparency deficiencies, but interrogating the candidates’ transparency isn’t simply about helping sort out who voters should vote for. The public, by demanding transparency during campaigns, has a chance to shape the behavior of future presidents by getting them on the record and setting a standard for how open they’ll be once they’re in power. In the White House, the instinct for self-preservation is stronger and the stakes are higher, which means candidates who clam up during a campaign are unlikely to get a burst of candor in office. If they’re not candid now, they’re not likely to be later as president, and that can be as serious as a heart attack.