“One of the most singularly American events at the White House . . . is the President’s press conference. These meetings have all the qualities of a high school track meet, bear-baiting, and the third degree administered by heavy-handed plain-clothes men.”
It has been 68 years since venerable White House correspondent Merriman Smith wrote those words in his book Thank You, Mr. President — the phrase Smith himself called out until his death in 1970 to signal the close of press conferences under six Presidents. The words still aptly characterize the institution of the press conference under the current President.
Since John Kennedy launched the tradition of news conferences on “live” television in 1961, these sessions featuring the President at the podium calling on reporters for questions have become a familiar institution in American politics and among the viewing public.
My own experience following President Bush’s April 13 press conference — the third press conference he has conducted on prime time television since taking office — proves this well. Even without being called on by the President, my few seconds on camera among the 150-plus reporters in the East Room generated more telephone calls, personal greetings (“Saw you last night!”), and e-mail messages than any written work I have produced in my near-quarter century with HUMAN EVENTS.
Why Not More?
When they were through commenting about spotting me, the most-frequent query by viewers was: “Why doesn’t Bush do more of these?” As the media frequently noted the next morning, Bush has held the fewest news conferences of any President since Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the forum for give-and-take with reporters in 1933. FDR, for example, conducted more than 1,000 press conferences during his 12-year presidency, Jimmy Carter did 59 in four years, and Ronald Reagan 44 in eight years.
“The President takes regular questions from you all and does so in different formats,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told me last week. McClellan and his staff were referring to the fact that, while Bush has limited the number of traditional televised news conferences with a battery of reporters tossing questions, he nonetheless makes himself accessible to the press in many different venues. In contrast to other Presidents, staffers note, Bush takes questions during photo opportunities. According to historian Martha Kundar, who has become a frequent fixture at the White House press room as she prepares a study on Presidents and the press, “The President has held 67 sessions with the press — 12 by himself and the rest when he takes questions with world leaders or other officials. He is criticized only because he has not had many press sessions in prime time. Actually, Nixon and Reagan were the only Presidents who had frequent press conferences in prime time.”
Bush also brings selected reporters to question him in small groups. My colleague Jim McTague, Washington editor of Barron’s, recalled how he was part of a group that met with the President on Feb. 25, 2003, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to discuss economic policy. Among those at the session were economist Larry Kudlow, Lou Dobbs of CNN, Alan Murray of CNBC, Janet Novak from Forbes magazine, and Washington Post columnist Jeff Birnbaum. Bush, aides say, is much more comfortable in such a small-group format than he is in a formal press conference.
“Bush should call on good conservatives instead of National Public Radio,” said the e-mail to me after Bush’s last press conference from Phil Paule, a longtime subscriber and an aide to Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.). Indeed, the second-most-asked question I got from readers after the press conference was: Why does the President call on the correspondents he does? What they’re talking about is that he almost always calls on the representatives of the major television networks, usually followed by correspondents with the wire services such as the Associated Press. Then he calls on the reporters from such familiar national publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times.
A review of transcripts from the Bush news conferences of October 28 and Dec. 15, 2003, and of April 13 of this year finds him, in all three sessions, tapping Terry Moran of ABC News, David Gregory of NBC and John Roberts of CBS. At the December 15 briefing, Bush completed his opening remarks and said, “I will take some questions, starting with the AP man.” Next to reporters’ having cellular phones and pagers ringing (an admonition to turn them off precedes every session with the President), Bushmen say that their man is most irked by reporters who shout at or interrupt him. During his October 28 news conference, as Bush was finishing a reply to a question from a radio reporter, another correspondent called out, “Another radio, Mr. President?” “Excuse me,” shot back an obviously irritated Bush. “Particularly since you interrupted me, no.”
The order in which the President turns to correspondents, old press hands note, has nothing to do with presidential likes and everything to do with tradition. Roosevelt began by calling on wire service reporters. Kennedy, aware of the potential of television, gave recognition to the representatives of that medium. Presidential recognition of a reporter outside this universe — particularly if he or she is called on by name — is almost as cherished as a Christmas bonus or promotion in the newsroom. When Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met the press in the Rose Garden two days after his news conference and the President permitted three questions for each of them, he closed the session by calling on April Ryan of American Urban Radio Network. As reporters waited in the pressroom for McClellan to commence the subsequent briefing, many repeatedly congratulated Ryan.
Before each of his encounters with the Fourth Estate, members of the White House press office and other administration officials will review transcripts of the afternoon press briefings and morning “gaggles” (off-camera sessions) by McClellan and are thus able to give the President a good idea of what kind of questions the reporters he calls on will ask. “And if you are quiet at the briefings and gaggles or are unknown to the press office,” one senior colleague in the press corps told me, “you have zero chance of ever being called on at the news conference.”
Bush-bashers, of course, have tried to make political hay out of what they consider the President’s low points on April 13. Less than a week after he met the press, the Democratic National Committee had on its website a mocking ad featuring the President’s struggling and sometimes disjointed answer to a question by Time magazine’s John Dickerson on what his biggest mistake has been in office. Spots like this make some wonder whether Bush should continue to lend himself to the format of the press conference.
“He definitely should do more press conferences — absolutely,” insists Jerry terHorst, Detroit News Washington bureau chief from 1960-73 and press secretary to President Gerald Ford. “The criticism he faced for his performance has not been as hard as that experienced by, say, Lyndon Johnson, or Dwight Eisenhower, whose answers would make reporters then go to a Cabinet secretary the next day to get things corrected. I don’t understand why he doesn’t do more formats like this because, it usually works to his benefit.”
Whatever course Bush takes with regard to more or fewer press conferences, the format seems as much a fixture in official Washington as any monument and as popular with television viewers as any long-running series. In 1946, Merriman Smith said that any President who dropped press conferences would be in for “a skull beating.” “His honeymoon,” wrote Smith, “will last exactly up to the time he says ‘No press conference’ or ‘Please submit written questions.'”