Ronald Reagan's ability as a communicator may decide his success as president. On his 10th day in office he reminded America that newsmen have a privilege in Washington that congressmen don't have: They can ask direct, unrehearsed questions of the chief executive at a press conference, a function almost uniformly left to elected members of parliament in other countries in so-called "question hours."
President Jimmy Carter was widely considered to have been only so-so as a communicator -- in terms of informing and mobilizing public sentiment behind his proposals.
Now the nation for the first time has a president who worked his way to the top as a communicator -- in Hollywood, in radio, in television, and as the two-term chief executive for the nation's most populous state.
No other means brings the nation's chief executive in such direct contact with the public as the presidential press conference, which has been evolving since the days of Theodore Roosevelt into what it is now, a quasi-official form of the governmental system.
Mr. Reagan faces extraordinarily complex, intertwined problems. At home, inflation runs around 12 percent. The President's decision to speed up oil deregulation will temporarily increase prices. His proposed tax cutting program will cause controversy in Congress. Abroad, hostages have been released. But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., at a press conference here, emphasizes what appears to be a tougher, more aggressive attitude toward the Soviet Union.
New presidents normally announce they will have "frequent" press conferences, but the procedure evolves with the incumbency; there is no legal requirement to have them at all. The great change in press conferences occurred in 1955, when President Eisenhower allowed conferences to be taped for later edited radio and film release. President Kennedy followed this up with live broadcasts. This helped end the intimate style of the old FDR press conferences, when reporters stood in front of the Oval Office desk, in friendly give and take. Instead there evolved the vastly enlarged, new procedure with reporters in chairs in a big conference room, from which 20 or more will bounce up trying to get recognition. To curb the turbulence, the Reagan White House issued advance instructions; reporters should remain in their seats and raise their hands politely and not shout if they want President Reagan to recognize them.
Reagan, like his predecessors, will evolve his own style, Washington believes. The rules of the conference give a strong president control at all times. He decides the number of conferences, their time and duration; he recognizes the correspondents who ask the questions; he can answer or evade the query; and he can do so in any form he desires. If he wishes he can use the Roosevelt and Truman phrase, "no comment."
The presidential press conference is often likened to that in parliament. But where prime ministers answer there is the valuable weapon of interpellation -- bringing into question a ministerial policy or action, and following this up with other questions. Follow-up is difficult in Washington, though some reporters may continue topics raised earlier.
The press conference is a valuable method of communication between president and nation. But it also poses a danger. On Nov. 30, 1941, Harry Truman caused a world furor when reporters sent erroneous bulletins to papers saying that he had authorized Gen. Douglas MaCarthur to use atomic bombs in Manchuria. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee rushed to Washingto n 48 hours later and Truman denied the implication.