The person who best answered questions from the press was former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield. His answers were magnificently decisive and brief. At one Monitor breakfast, he uttered nearly 50 "yeps" and "nopes." No equivocating, lecturing, or lengthy explaining from Senator Mansfield. He let us know exactly where he stood in no time at all.
I got to thinking about Mansfield while watching the president's last televised press conference. President Clinton once quipped that a Democratic convention speech he made in 1988 "lasted two years." He went on and on - drawing some hisses and cat-calls from the audience before it mercifully came to an end. Some observers said at the time that he had ended any chance of becoming president by being so prolix. Little did they know.
Clinton's press conference last week matched that speech. This time, he held forth for 93 minutes, undoubtedly the longest of all presidential press conferences. He again demonstrated how smart and knowledgeable he is. But he also was windy. His press secretary and other aides tried to stop him - to no avail. This president loves to talk.
The president did have a message, though - about how active he will be next year. Lately there have been rumors that Clinton has become bored with governing - that he spends a lot of time simply putting a golf ball around his White House quarters.
Clinton obviously had gotten wind of this talk, and the press conference was his answer. He's going to be active. He's fully engaged right now. And, he seemed to be saying, "if you can't get this idea through your head, I'm going to tell you enough times that you will."
Actually, Clinton usually performs well at press conferences. He's fully prepared and provides intelligent answers. But every once in a while he seems to like to tell the reporters how much he knows. And that's when he loses his audience. I wonder how many TV watchers hung on for 93 minutes?
President Kennedy, the first to use TV at a press conference, proved to be the best performer in televised press conferences. He was low-key, witty, and, best of all, succinct. President Nixon gave excellent answers. But he also got mad at times. That doesn't play well at all. Viewers like their presidents to stay cool.
Clinton didn't help himself at the press conference when, instead of answering questions, he took on some unnamed press critics. He said beating up on the president appeared to have become a national civic ritual. "It's almost a citizen responsibility to criticize the president," he said. "I mean, it's 'why be an American if you can't criticize the president?' "
This, it seemed, was a president feeling sorry for himself. That, too, doesn't go over well with either press or public.
Still, it was the president's loquaciousness that undercut the impact of his passionate plea for affirmative action and his underscoring of what he called his most important accomplishments: balancing the budget, more money for education, and a global agreement to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Ronald Reagan, who was dubbed the "Great Communicator," won that title for his speechmaking skills. But his answers at press conferences were often vague and off the mark. Reagan knew this and once told me: "It's a hearing problem." He simply wasn't able to hear the questions at these meetings, where there's always a lot of noise in the background.
Reagan, nevertheless, gave good performances. He came up with amusing anecdotes. He was pleasant. And that old actor never forgot a basic rule of speaking: Never talk too long.
Sometimes Clinton likes to tell how much he knows. And that's when he loses his audience.