From the soapbox to the fourth estate

Surprise gathering was one more twist in strange rapport of president, press.

If President Bush gives a hastily called press conference on a July morning, with nothing major to announce, did the gathering happen at all?

To the assembled White House press corps, at least, the answer is yes. Wednesday's news conference was the answer to a journalistic prayer - a rare opportunity to quiz the president directly on a range of topics, and the first such event since the beginning of war with Iraq.

After an opening that seemed more like a mini-State of the Union summation than an effort to make headlines, Mr. Bush's responses to questions were notable both for their content and, at times, their vehemence. For the first time, he took responsibility for his questionable assertion last January that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. He offered a podium-pounding endorsement of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who's faced growing criticism over the administration's use of intelligence. He reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage and declared support for codifying marriage as a man-woman union.

Like most American presidents, Bush has had a testy relationship with the fourth estate. For him, that's played out in holding few full-corps press conferences (as distinct from quick Q and A's after photo ops, or joint sessions with foreign leaders). At this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had held 33 solo press conferences; the first President Bush, 61. Wednesday's gathering was this president's ninth.

Afterwards, journalists' reaction was: Thank you very much - and when's the next one? For the insatiably hungry beast that is the White House press corps, there can't be too many - even if, ultimately, the format clearly plays to the president's advantage. Followup questions are rare, and journalists who want to stay in the West Wing's good graces won't press the chief executive too hard.

So why, then, shouldn't Bush do more press conferences - especially those in the less formal settings he prefers, such as the Rose Garden, where Wednesday's event was held, and the plain auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House?

To Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, Bush should do more. "There's a myth about press conferences, that the president is the man in the arena and the journalists are picadors waiting to do him in," says Mr. Hess, who was a speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House.

"Reporters always think they'll trap the president into saying something he doesn't want to say. The last time that happened was under Truman." (At a press conference on Nov. 30, 1950, President Truman stated that he had been considering using atomic bombs in Korea. After an uproar, he had to back away from the remark.)

In the heat of controversy, of course, presidents avoid the press, as with Reagan in the midst of Iran-contra and Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. But timed right, press conferences in fact present a valuable opportunity. During a relatively quiet week such as this one, they allow a president to put his own spin on events and trends - and push back against criticism.

Before press conferences, a president's aides prep him extensively, reviewing material from government agencies and anticipating reporters' questions. "These are important opportunities for a president to learn something," says Hess. "He's going to expect 90 percent of the questions, so the president doesn't really have to worry about being caught off guard."

Bush's animosity toward the press goes way back. In the summer of 1992, as Bush's father sought reelection, Republican National Convention-goers sported T-shirts and buttons that said "Annoy the Media, Vote for Bush." On the convention floor that August, when TV anchor Dan Rather approached George W., the president's son greeted him with a hit of sarcasm. "It's a pleasure to be with such a star," he said, according to George W. Bush biographer Bill Minutaglio.

During his own presidential election campaign, Bush was stumped when a Boston TV reporter asked him to name the president of Pakistan, sparking a mini-tempest over what a candidate should know and whether such a question was fair.

These encounters reflected and fed Bush's oft-repeated notion that journalists crave presidential access in large part to preen for television cameras.

As Texas governor, Bush got used to the feeling of having a pack of reporters following his every move, and fell into comfortable relations with some, anointing them with nicknames. A few Washington press regulars also have nicknames. And it is, in part, that relaxed familiarity, displayed at times on Wednesday morning, that sets some voters at ease and gives Bush high "likability" scores in opinion polls.

In the end, if a president is feeling on top of his game, like an athlete, he may well decide the time is ripe for a round with the press.

"It's an opportunity to show leadership, that he's hands on, whether it's Iraq or the economy, doing what he can," says independent analyst Stu Rothenberg. "The more he lets you guys throw punches at him - as long as he deflects them successfully or counterpunches - the better he looks."

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