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Sidey, Hugh Swanson

Published onJul 30, 2021
Sidey, Hugh Swanson

(September 3, 1927 - November 21, 2005)

Quick Facts

Iowa State alumni, business manager for the Iowa State Daily, newspaper reporter, reporter for Life magazine, columnist and White House correspondent for Time magazine, author. 

Hugh Sidey was born on September 3, 1927 at Greenfield, Iowa to Kenneth Sidey and Alice Swanson Sidey.  His father, grandfather, and great grandfather had been publishers of the newspaper in Greenfield known originally as the Adair County Democrat and then as the Adair County Free Press.  Sidey grew up in Greenfield and started working at the newspaper at the age of eight when his grandfather told him it was time that he had a job.  Sidey remembered years later that “He gave me a broom and showed me how to use it.”  Thereafter, Hugh Sidey's life was intimately connected with journalism.  While growing up, he enjoyed boating, canoeing, constructing model airplanes, and liked to listen to Big Ten football games on the radio.  He also worked as a lifeguard.

Sidey graduated from Greenfield High School in 1945, took summer classes at Iowa State College (now University), and then enlisted in the U.S. Army.  After military service, he returned to Iowa State, roomed with his brother, Ed, and originally intended to study engineering. However, within a year he and Ed both decided to major in journalism where they both became leaders in publication of the Iowa State Daily and worked with Professor Rodney Fox.  While Ed served as editor, Hugh was business manager for two years and managing editor during his last year.  He was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, the men's professional journalism fraternity. He also sang in the Men's Glee Club and was a member of Phi Mu Alpha, the men's fraternal organization for participants in campus music organizations.

Sidey graduated from Iowa State in 1950, spent the summer working back in Greenfield on the newspaper, and applied unsuccessfully for jobs with the Des Moines Register and Better Homes and Gardens.  He found employment with the Council Bluffs Nonpareil and worked there for six months before going to work for the Omaha World-Herald.  While there he covered City Hall and the Missouri River flood of 1952.  While working on the Herald, he met Alice Anne Trowbridge who he married on December 5, 1953.  They had four children, Edwin, Cynthia, Sandra, and Bettina.

In 1955, Sidey was hired by Life magazine to cover science in New York City.  In 1957, he was assigned to cover the second inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  This started his career in a new direction in which he covered and personally knew every president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush.  In 1958, Sidey switched from Life to Time magazine and remained with Time until his death in 2005.  In 1960, he reported on the U-2 crisis in 1960 and Eisenhower's management of the crisis.

He met John F. Kennedy in a Senate elevator in1958, followed his presidential primary campaign in the spring of 1960 and the fall campaign against Richard Nixon. He was then assigned to cover Kennedy in the White House.  He came to know Kennedy well, swam with him in the White House swimming pool, and accompanied him to Berlin and to the tragedy in Dallas.  Sidey knew Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1957 when the latter was Senate Majority Leader and spent much time with Johnson during his presidency.  He viewed Johnson as a man who would work feverishly, even demonically and then spend weeks to months in quiet brooding. He traveled with Nixon to China.  He also had clashes with both Nixon and Jimmy Carter.  Later Sidey developed a close friendship with Ronald Reagan and was one of the few reporters that Reagan talked with regularly about the issues that were pressing on him. 

In his book, Profiles of the Presidents (2000), Sidey summarized his years of covering nine presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton by writing that, “The nine men I covered were alike in that they were triumphant political figures, but they were wildly differing human beings, whose leadership styles were shaped by their individual characters and backgrounds.  Many of my initial impressions of them were wrong, for mine was a constant voyage of learning and correcting my views.”

As Sidey gained national prominence, he took on many tasks.  Besides that of reporter, he started a column entitled “The Presidency” in Time in 1966 and continued that column for thirty years.  He became bureau chief for Time-Life in 1969, contributing editor of Time in 1978, and retired in 1996 in order to chair the White House Historical Society.  Also in 1996, he wrote the script for “Iowa: An American Portrait,” a documentary produced by Iowa Public Television.  He appeared as a panelist on political talk shows Agronsky and Company and its successor, Washington Insider.   Yet, Sidey once insisted, “I never really left Iowa.  I used to come back as often as I could.”  Indeed, he returned to Greenfield with some frequency to assist his brother Ed, who had stayed with the family newspaper after graduating from Iowa State. 

Sidey was also a prolific author, and many aspects of his professional life can be found in them.  Between 1956 and 2005, he either authored, co-authored, contributed to, or wrote introductions for seventeen books.  They were mostly on presidents and the presidency but also covered subjects such as photojournalism and the Statue of Liberty.

He authored six books: John F. Kennedy, President. New York. Atheneum, 1963; The Memories—JFK—1961-1963. New York. W. W. Norton & Company, 1973; Portrait of a President. New York. Harper & Row, 1975 (about Gerald R. Ford); Presidents of the United State of America. White House Historical Association, 1996; Portraits of the Presidents: Power and Personality in the White House. Time Books, 2000; and The White House Remembered. Washington, D. C. White House Historical Association in cooperation with Thornwillow Press, 2005.

Sidey also co-authored four books: 1,000 Ideas For Better News Pictures. Ames, Iowa. Iowa State College Press, 1956 (with Rodney Fox, his journalism professor from Iowa State); The Presidents of the United State of America. Washington, D. C. White House Historical Association with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society, 1995 (with Frank Freidel); Remembering Jack. Boston. Bulfinch Press, 2003 (with Bob Adelman Books); and The Statue of Liberty. Scala Arts Publisher, 2006 (posthumously and with Frank Freidel.)

In addition, Sidey contributed to one book: The White House: an Historic Guide. Washington, D. C. White House Historical Association, 2001.

Finally, Sidey wrote introductions for four books; Herbert G. Klein, Making It Perfectly Clear. Garden City, New York. Doubleday, 1980; Iowa: The American Heartland. Des Moines. IA. Bankers Trust, 1981; Prelude to Leadership: The European Diary of John F. Kennedy, Summer, 1945. Washington, D. C. Regnery Publishing, 1995; and Horace Busby,  The Thirty-First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson's Final Days in Office. New York. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.  

Hugh Swanson Sidey died suddenly of a heart attack in Paris, France on November 21, 2005, during an annual Thanksgiving vacation there.  In 2006, the Hugh S. Sidey Scholarship in Print Journalism was established at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University in his honor.

Selected Sources

Information on the life of Hugh Swanson Sidey is widely scattered.  The Iowa State Bomb for 1948, 1949, and 1950 include information on Sidey's activities with the Iowa State Daily and the Men's Glee Club and also include a number of photographs of Sidey.  

Information is also found in obituaries in the Des Moines Register, November 22, 2005, p. 4B; the New York Times, November 23, 2005; and Time, November 22, 2005. 

Other information can be found in George A.W. Vogel, 100 Years at a Glance: Greenfield, Iowa 1856-1956. Des Moines, IA, 1956; a very informative article in the Carroll (IA) Daily Times Herald, May 1, 2014, pp. 1, 10 about the history of the Adair County Free Press and the extended Sidey family's ownership and editorship of the paper; and at

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