Today marks the 267th birthday of James Madison, the Founding Father who wrote the Bill of Rights, including provisions for free speech, assembly and press. And Madison included these democratic essentials because he knew the free flow of information was integral to the nascent nation’s success. “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” said Madison. And it’s for that reason that Madison’s birthday’s celebrated coast-to-coast as Freedom of Information Day.
Not incidentally, yesterday was the 105th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson holding the first press conference at the White House, on March 15, 1913. It wasn’t meant to be a press conference: Wilson invited the press over so he could meet them individually, but more reporters showed up than he anticipated, so the president ended up giving general remarks.
“I want an opportunity to open part of my mind to you,” Wilson said that day. But this and future meetings were about more than Wilson sharing his perspective. He wanted the nation’s input, too: as he said a few days later, “Please do not tell the country what Washington’s thinking, for that does not make any difference. Tell Washington what the country’s thinking.”
Though the relationship between Wilson and journalists wasn’t always so chummy, especially after the Great War began, the president knew then what Madison knew so many years before: the flow of information between people and leaders, and vice versa, was the bedrock for a more perfect union. The exchange of ideas and experiences is what keeps a nation, and its leadership, fresh and responsive.
Now, in these Trumpian times, with a chief executive who smears the press as enemies of the people, who slams “fake news” and whose communications team obfuscates, obscures and outright lies to the media, all to keep information flowing one way, if at all, let’s hold Wilson and Madison close to our collective hearts, reminding ourselves both of what makes a great leader, one who respects our national institutions and people in general, and of the need to edit out any pernicious elements that hinder such exchanges.
Only 962 days until we get our chance.