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How Three U.S. Presidents Reacted to Adversity and the Media

06/02/2013 07:01 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2013
  • Jason Grill Founder - JGrill Media, Entrepreneur, Attorney, Former member of the Missouri House of Representatives.
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Throughout history many politicians and elected officials have dealt with being baited by their adversaries and the media in very different ways. Some have allowed them to dominate their mindset and hold them back on what they were trying to accomplish, while others have kept their head down and remained cool. Some have empowered them through unnecessary or unthoughtful responses and lost their temper, while others have taken the high ground, stayed away from petty tit-for-tat and remained focused. Those that have seen the bigger picture, kept their head about them and invoked a sense of humor in the right instances have always ended up in a stronger position.

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President Andrew Jackson -- seventh President of the United States

One such individual who did not deal with being baited by his adversaries very well was President Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson married Rachel Donelson Robards, believing she had obtained a divorce from her prior husband, Lewis Robards. However, the divorce had never been finalized, thus making the marriage invalid and bigamous. The two ended up getting remarried after Robards divorce was finalized. The controversy surrounding the marriage tormented Jackson. It consumed him and he let his anger and the attacks on his wife get to him. Charles Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in 1806 in which he called Andrew Jackson a worthless scoundrel and a coward. Andrew Jackson took the bait written in the local paper and challenged Dickinson via a written challenge to a duel. Jackson ended up killing Dickinson, but a bullet struck Jackson very close to his heart and it couldn't be removed. Not only did Jackson almost die because of this decision, historic accounts show that Andrew Jackson's reputation suffered an extreme hit because of the duel with Dickinson. Jackson let his passion and his frustrations over the hype around the situation get to him. A take-no-prisoners response approach backfired on Jackson.

Jackson continued to let the better of his emotions and animosity get to him, even when dealing with his Vice President, John Calhoun. Mrs. Calhoun and many other prominent officers wives treated Peggy Eaton, the wife of his Secretary of War, poorly socially, which irritated Jackson. The President let his feelings towards his own earlier baiting with his wife take over. This just led to more problems with Vice President Calhoun. However, this individual bitterness was a key origin of Jackson's dislike of Calhoun. This exacerbated all the political and policy differences they had at the time.

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President Barack Obama -- 44th President of the United States

In more recent political times, Barack Obama, has responded to being baited in different ways. We saw one way during the entire birth certificate controversy back and forth. The political noise became so loud that President Obama held a press conference on April 27, 2011 at the White House to make a statement on the release of a full detailed version of his birth certificate. The president stated he watched for over two and half years with bemusement and was puzzled with the degree at which the noise kept on going. After almost everyone with knowledge from Hawaii and the mainstream news media confirmed Obama was born in the United States, the president still had to stand at a podium, speak on the issue and post his full birth certificate on the Internet.

Normally, a president would not comment on issues such as these, given all the political accusations and baiting that takes place in the press and in Washington DC. However, this time he did because the matter had taken over the political dialogue and taken away from important policy issues that were facing the country. These issues were being drowned out by the chatter about the birth certificate.

He used the moment at the press conference to talk about the importance of solving real issues that face the country and the need to come together as a nation and in Congress to help Americans. President Obama said:

"We're not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows."

He took the bait of responding to those who were yelling about his birth certificate not in a here-you-go, I-told-you-so manner; but rather he made it into a bigger dialogue with the American people about what is important to the majority of them. Addressing the major challenges facing the United States and doing so in a serious manner to help Americans now and in the future.

President Obama finished his statement that day by saying:

"We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We've got better stuff to do. I've got better stuff to do. We've got big problems to solve. And I'm confident we can solve them, but we're going to have to focus on them -- not on this."

President Obama took the bait from a small majority of Americans and the press; however he was able to handle the moment in a well-delivered and thoughtful manner.

Seems a lot better than a duel doesn't it?

President Obama has also taken the bait and faced adversity in a lighthearted manner. We have seen this with the accusation that Obama is a Muslim. In 2012, after serving as President of the United States for three and a half years, a Pew Poll found that 17 percent of registered voters believed Obama was a Muslim, while 49 percent correctly identified him as a Christian and 31 percent of respondents said they did not know.

Even after the president broke ties with his controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign and talked about his Christian faith, 48 percent of the registered voters polled still believe him to be Muslim or didn't know his religious affiliation. Only one in four polled correctly identified him as a Protestant.

Now, most of this is due to his name: Barack Hussein Obama.

President Obama has addressed these concerns often through humor. One case in point was at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in 2012. He told a joke and brought in his then-challenger in the 2012 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, on what they have in common.

President Obama said, "Tonight's not about the disagreements Governor Romney and I may have. It's what we have in common, beginning with our unusual names. Actually Mitt is his middle name, I wish I could use my middle name."

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President Ronald Reagan -- 40th President of the United States

President Ronald Reagan was the king of the one-liner. A great communicator. He used humor often when communicating to different audiences. This was one of his most effective and strongest ways to react during adversity. Some of his most famous lines came after John Hinkley Jr. shot him on March 30, 1981. This was one of the last situations you would think humor would be a good idea, but in this situation it was for Reagan. In this assassination attempt Reagan suffered a punctured lung and heavy internal bleeding just 69 days into his presidency. But even in this state, he looked up at doctors and nurses at George Washington University Hospital and said, "I hope you're all Republicans." After surviving the assassination attempt he told his wife Nancy, "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Reagan often used his sense of humor with the media when they were trying to bait him to lose his temper. He once said to a reporter, "It's my job to solve all the country's problems, and it's your job to make sure no one finds out about it." He didn't lose his cool during tough questioning or conflict, but rather his tongue-in-cheek approach connected him with Americans and was very endearing.

We saw President Reagan use humor very effectively during the second presidential debate with his 1984 opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale in Kansas City, Missouri. After being widely panned for being disengaged in the first debate, Reagan responded humorously to a question about whether his age would affect his leadership abilities during a major crisis. Reagan responded, "Not at all... and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." When directly questioned on a perceived weak issue and put on the defense, Reagan turned the tables, went on offense, and implemented humor to make his age a major strength, while at the same time raising his likability with the audience and listeners around the country.

President Reagan also used self-deprecating humor very effectively and frequently when attacked about his age and acting. He once took heavy criticism for nodding off and falling asleep at the White House during the day. His response to the media, "I've given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world's hot spots, they should wake me up immediately even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting." On another occasion he said, "I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon." He even brought up and joked about his acting background from time-to-time. When asked about Clint Eastwood's run for mayor of Carmel, California he said, "What makes him think a middle-aged actor, who's played with a chimp, could have a future in politics?" When once asked how an actor could become President of the United States, Reagan responded, "How can a president not be an actor?" His lighthearted, yet poking fun at himself mentality and persona was always a very effective adversity and conflict management technique. Reagan was able to use humor to deflect attacks with a hint of truth in them, as well as go on offense with humor to define the conversation. Reagan's sense of humor was one of the biggest, if not the most major tool in his toolbox.

President's Jackson, Obama and Reagan decisions, experiences and personalities all provide historic evidence of how future politicians and elected officials should and shouldn't handle being baiting and dealing with adversity. Let's just hope no duels are involved and some good wit and sense of humor rule the day and the dialogue in the future.