President Clinton Meets the Press

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THE president weathered the storm of his first official press conference. Indeed, except for some probing questions on gays in the military, it was, for Bill Clinton, pretty much of a cake walk. No badgering. No hostility. No evidence of adversarial journalism.

The president had been looking warily at these meetings with the media. He'd seen the way these sessions had been used by reporters so often in the past to give a president a going-over that made him look bad in the eyes of the vast TV audience. That's the main reason why Mr. Clinton waited more than two months before exposing himself to what many chief executives had come to look upon as something of a torture-chamber treatment.

My information is that Clinton will agree to these formal, full press conferences on an infrequent basis - following more the example of Ronald Reagan than George Bush and Jimmy Carter. He received a courteous "freebie" from the journalists the other day, surprisingly so. But he knows that hands-off treatment probably won't last long.

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I favor presidential press conferences - the more the better, even though I wish we could go back to the days before they were televised.

But, it's arguable that these pre-announced meetings with the media, with America's millions watching on TV, may be poison to presidents. In fact, a new, related political law seems to be emerging: a law of abstinence. The more a president abstains from full press conferences, the more likely he will continue to look good in the eyes of the public.

Mr. Carter almost religiously held twice-a-month evening press conferences. Sure, the voters' judgment of his performance in office defeated him. But the banging around he received at these media sessions didn't help. The more the people saw of this amiable fellow on TV, the less they supported him - or so it seemed. Carter, himself, appeared to realize this as time went on, cutting back on these press events as his popularity declined.

Then came Mr. Reagan. The media delighted in criticizing him for not meeting with them more often. But Reagan just smiled vaguely and did it his way. Whatever else happened to Reagan - and he certainly had his ups and downs - he was reelected.

And then there's Mr. Bush, the most friendly president, in my memory, when it came to dealing with the media. He had one press conference after another. And the reporters loved it - getting all those opportunities to perform on TV where they could demonstrate how tough their questions could be and how brave they were in sticking it to a president.

Nevertheless, Bush was defeated. It wasn't because of his record-setting number of press conferences; but those really hurt him. His amiability on camera was interpreted by too many people as an expression of vacuity. And his sometimes stumbling sentences left the impression of a leader who was blowing an uncertain trumpet.

So, Mr. Clinton, I think your decision to hold such TV press conferences sparingly is good - for you. You will prosper by such relative abstinence. But, Mr. President, how about scheduling get-togethers with the media from time to time, away from the TV cameras that make actors and showoffs out of some reporters and tend to put presidents in a bad light?

Yes, reporters still do act like reporters when the TV cameras are absent. I was reminded of that the other day when Secretary of State Warren Christopher, meeting with the print press at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, hardly had to raise his voice as nearly 50 journalists leaned forward to hear every word.

No questions were shouted. No one was aggressive. The questions were incisive, the answers thoughtful.

Public officials are more likely to be more forthcoming when they are being treated civilly - and not being snarled at. Mr. Christopher was no exception: He disclosed that Clinton would offer a package of generous aid for Russia when he and Boris Yeltsin meet at the summmit. This was confirmed at Clinton's press conference.

In our hour with Christopher - in which there had been no acrimony and no showing off - we reporters learned a lot.

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