WASHINGTON — At a recent awards dinner put on by the International Center for Journalists, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin questioned whether President Bush was talking to the public too much about the war.
She said that Franklin D. Roosevelt was sparing in his war-related speeches - and that he did this purposely, feeling that his words would have more weight if the public looked upon each of his speeches as something special.
At about the same time, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, onetime head of the House International Relations Committee, also raised a question about the president's speeches. At a Monitor breakfast, he said he was worried about Bush speaking so often on foreign relations and war plans without a written text. He said it would be so easy for the president to make a misstatement that could bring about some very bad results, perhaps even causing a crisis.
Both of these speakers were generally complimentary of the president's speeches on the war. But they did express these reservations.
As a member of the Army Air Force during World War II, I well remember FDR's comforting messages via radio, and what a commanding presence he was able to project. He had what has been called a "mystique," stemming, I believe, from his remoteness and that wonderful voice.
But I don't think Roosevelt could have been the same Roosevelt today. He'd have TV cameras following him wherever he went. Whenever he talked to the press about the war, the world would be listening and watching. He might have been able to limit his public appearances and make fewer public speeches. But what is a "public speech" in these war days?
Every time Bush opens his mouth, the cameras are on him, and his words are heard by millions of people at home and abroad. So if Roosevelt were president now, he would have a hard time avoiding those cameras, and this reality: The public has come to expect such TV accountings from their leaders on what they are doing and what is going on.
The day following Ms. Goodwin's speech, the president held a prime-time news conference. He was, of course, speaking to both the media and the American people. He was well prepared and did a near-flawless job.
FDR also had his press conferences - and many of them. But they were relatively private, compared with today's. He spoke to and took questions from 15 to 20 reporters each weekday morning (for the afternoon papers) and 15 to 20 reporters each afternoon (for the next morning's papers). He imposed a "background" rule, under which he could not be quoted.
So the world today would create a different Roosevelt. We would be prying into his private life and watching almost his every move. For a long time, because of TV, our presidents have lived in a goldfish bowl.
But, that said, Ms. Goodwin may well have a point. Perhaps the president could be a little more restrained in his willingness to make powerful pronouncements.
The other day, he jumped off his helicopter to tell reporters on the White House lawn that he was rejecting a Taliban offer to turn over Osama bin Laden to a neutral third country. "They must not have heard: There's no negotiations," he told the reporters and, it could be assumed, the Taliban and the world. Bush was speaking without notes.
Whether Bush could be more restrained in his communications with the public, we must deal with the realities: Roosevelt was president when presidents were rather remote from the public, because of poor communications. FDR had radio, of course, and used it well. But it's TV that has brought presidents and all public figures right into our living rooms. And the fellow who asks for our votes on TV is expected to report to us on TV when he becomes president.
Now we have a very friendly, talkative president. Up until now, he's been doing a fine job keeping us informed and united behind him in the war effort. Will he overexpose himself on TV and thus weaken his ability to influence the public? Will he say something off the cuff that damages our foreign relations?
Those are the risks.