As he was wont to do, a longtime friend of Newsweek’s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., captured the mission of presidential history and journalism best. “Biography reminds us that presidents are not supermen,” wrote Schlesinger. “They are human beings too, worrying about decisions, attending to wives and children, juggling balls in the air, and putting on their pants one leg at a time.”
Schlesinger had it right, both in terms of history in general and of Newsweek in particular: telling the story of the human beings who have led us through eight tumultuous decades has been central to the work of the magazine, an institution long dedicated to the principle that the personal is inextricably linked to the political.
Newsweek began publishing in the last weeks of the administration of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States; the magazine will make its transition to an all-digital format on the eve of the second inauguration of the 44th. Thirteen presidents; at least six wars (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the two Iraq wars); two impeachment dramas (Nixon and Clinton); and more political rises and falls and rises and falls than one can easily count.
From Nixon and his White House tapes to a dramatic split-image of George W. Bush and Al Gore (“The Winner Is …”) during the recount election of 2000, the iconographic power of the cover captured essential moments and created others. In October 1987, the magazine’s editors put Vice President George H.W. Bush on the cover with the line “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’” The quotation marks were supposed to signal that the phrase—and the issue of Bush’s capacity to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow—had become common in the politics of 1988, but most readers (chiefly then Vice President Bush) failed to note the nuance. The World War II hero had the best revenge: victory.
“The turmoil perennially swirling around the White House illuminates the heart of the American democracy,” wrote Schlesinger. In a shifting economic and cultural climate, the fate of journalism is uncertain, but for those of us who have long loved Newsweek this much is clear: the turmoil swirls still, and democracy’s heart beats on.
Jon Meacham worked at Newsweek from 1995 to 2010.