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Bush's `Humor Gap' With Press

By Godfrey Sperling Jr.Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist. / March 20, 1990



IN some ways it was better than an interview. From the president, himself, in his own handwriting, came a response to a column in which I had urged him not to cut back on his get-togethers with the press. ``Not to worry,'' Mr. Bush wrote. ``I am not cutting back on the numbers of press conferences.'' On Air Force One only a couple of weeks earlier the president, nettled by what he believed to be unfair treatment of words he had uttered at a press conference, had said he ``wanted a whole new relationship'' with the news media, one that would provide much less accessibility.

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My column expressed the hope he had been ``kidding'' when he made those remarks, as press secretary Marlin Fitzwater later indicated. The president's openness has been an essential part of the way the public perceives him and, thereby, his performance. Whatever his own perspective might be, I said, he had been receiving a very good press - in large part because of his unprecedented openness.

The presidential note went on to say this:

``Indeed, since that `joking' plane encounter - 2 to 21/2 weeks ago - I have had at least three press conferences and several `encounters of the informal kind' - two while walking, one on plane, etc.''

Then the president mentioned what might be called a ``humor gap'' between himself and the press.

``Life goes on,'' Mr. Bush commented, wryly. ``What I think is hilariously funny is sometimes construed as `fuming.''' The president doubtless referred to the media's characterization of his Air Force One remarks, as well as other occasions when he felt the press misinterpreted his straight-faced joshing.

``They ought to see me when I really `fume' - ask Marlin,'' Bush added.

There is more to the note, but it's enough to say the president plans to remain just as accessible to the media as he has been from the beginning of his administration. He does intend, however, to be more watchful of his words, particularly in making casual comments that could be misinterpreted.

This president loves to banter. I understand that, but some reporters don't. They are deadly serious about everything. They have just about enough humor to fill a thimble. Watch their faces at briefings.

Sure, some members of the White House press corps have wonderful senses of humor. Some crack up on occasion. But others never laugh at anything. It's as if they are saying, ``It's not professional to laugh at a public figure - particularly a president.''

Several months ago I had some banter with the president over a $5 bill I found at his feet at a White House picnic. He insisted it wasn't his and that I should keep it. I insisted he take it - perhaps for a rainy day, or perhaps to lower the deficit.

Bush loves light, joshing exchanges like this. But I think he is learning that, as a president, he has to apply some rein to light-hearted conversation.

The subjects are often too serious for such treatment. There's hardly anything a president says that doesn't have possible national or global impact.

But even if Bush becomes more circumspect with his humor, I hope he sticks with it. By and large, with the already noted exceptions, his fun-loving approach lights up the press conferences - and the living rooms of millions of Americans.