During a breakfast a few years ago, Lyn Nofziger told me presidents should hold more press conferences with Q&A sessions. His reasoning: They prevent controversies from building up too long before being addressed.
Like John Kennedy before him, Ronald Reagan was able to use the media’s questions to advance his campaign aspirations. As a gubernatorial candidate, Reagan used Q&A sessions to overcome the myth that he was merely an actor. (Granted, there were some predictable gaffes, but overall, this strategy was a huge success and proved Reagan wasn’t merely an "empty suit.") And when Nofziger ran Governor Reagan’s communications office, the practice continued.
Unfortunately, according to Nofziger, President Reagan’s handlers in the White House would not allow President Reagan to hold weekly Q&A sessions. Nofziger believes this was a mistake.
It seems that after five years, the Bush team has finally decided to follow Nofziger’s advice. By holding frequent news conferences and speeches with Q&A, Bush is sending a signal of openness.
Some people, who view the media as the enemy, call this tack "appeasement." But while the primary goal of any politician is to advance his strategic goals — not to necessarily make the media happy — doing the former is sometimes necessary to achieve the latter.
And keep in mind, the target audience isn’t the press corps — it is the public. In a sense, the media is a prop. Bush is using them to show the public he is being open.
For example, When Bush called on Helen Thomas today, he realized he wasn’t going to win her over. But calling on her sends a signal that he isn’t afraid of answering tough questions.
Of course, there are certainly downsides to openness. One problem with holding frequent press conferences is that he may not have any new information to give. Again, while this is a problem, I still believe I’d err on the side of encouraging more communication.
Another danger is that the more a politician speaks, the more likely it is that gaffes will occur.
No doubt, that is the underlying reason this closely-guarded White House has heretofore eschewed Q&A sessions. In fairness, they do have a point: I’m listening to his press conference right now, and President Bush has lost his cool a couple of times. He’s trying to be funny, but it’s not really working. He just accused a reporter of going to sleep during a previous press conference…
Well, he isn’t Ronald Reagan, and even if he was, you can’t expect immediate results from any new strategy. But like any investment, I expect it will pay dividends in the long run.