THE endless campaign is winding down quickly, even if not quickly enough. So it's time to consider some things that will happen after Nov. 8. One of these must be how the next president will communicate with the American people, and that boils down to presidential press conferences - how many, where, and for whom? Regular White House press conferences, complete with questions from reporters instead of just lectures from the chief, began with Woodrow Wilson. They've ebbed and flowed ever since. Cal Coolidge took questions in writing. If he didn't like one, he'd read it, crumple it up, and toss it away without an answer. FDR reveled in press gatherings, holding two a week on average. Ike brought on the TV cameras and press conferences changed forever.
Over his two terms, Ronald Reagan has generally opted for other means of communication - speeches, photo opportunities, the weekly radio shows. Press conferences have sagged to one every other month - and when they do come, they're staged affairs pitting frustrated reporters against a guarded president.
Now a commission organized by Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government has urged a return to ``regular, routine, and undramatic'' press conferences. Their recommendations: daytime meetings with the press twice a month, plus six televised evening news conferences a year. The commission tackles the prickly details, too - how to control access to the conferences by an ungainly White House press corps of 2,500, when to have a full TV presence, and when to use a single ``pool'' camera. It suggests, reasonably, that some conferences could be limited to one area, such as foreign policy, and to reporters specializing in that area.
The commission's ideas provide a sound basis for discussion and change. The central issue, it correctly points out, is presidential accountability. Citizens can no longer queue up at the White House for a conference with the president, as in the early 19th century. They have to watch him, or read about him, fielding questions put forward by others.
The questioners have to be held accountable, too. The present system of rare, highly dramatized press conferences tempts some reporters to be more concerned with aggressiveness in posing their questions than with getting real answers.
After a campaign where rhetoric has often flown free from accountability, regular press conferences that are less media events than an integral part of government are more important than ever.