Reagan press aide: 'We have been reported fairly'
President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, in an interview in Washington with Monitor correspondent Godfrey Sperling Jr., describes his role as spokesman for a chief executive who himself has come to be regarded as a "communicator."
Do you see yourself as the President's press secretary or the press's press secretary?
I see myself as the press secretary for the nation. People say you can't serve two masters. That's right. I have only one master -- that's the President.
But I serve the President best by serving the press best. Where that comes out is that if you serve the President and the press, you serve the nation. The job here is to facilitate the conversation between the President and the people.
Have you, in the short time you've held this position, said some things unintentionally that have led to stories that are incorrect?
Sure. Anyone who would say that he hasn't done this in my position, well . . . Some of my job is to say what I have to say to the press in such a way that this won't come about.
I think it was a former defense press secretary who said there were times when a press secretary had to lie to the press. Do you agree with this position?
No, rather than lie I would take the Fifth [Amendment to the US Constitution] . But I will not say, "I will never lie to you." That has a bad ring to it. Sometimes not to say anything seems to confirm something. And that becomes a gray area that is very touchy.
Do you see your jobs as that of putting the best face on information?
The most accurate face on information. Information puts its own face on itself. There must be a place where you, the press, get straight answers to straight questions. That's what my job is all about.
But don't you have to admit that the President, like all president before him , is trying to manage the news?
Yes, well I'd say to intentionally try to go out to get a bad story would be foolish. What I want to add to that is that we'll take it if it just comes out straight. If an effort is made on the press's part to play it straight -- that is, that reporters take what we say and not twist it -- that's what we are after. And if that's managing the news, well I'll accept that description of what we do.
Do you see the President at a certain time each day?
I have my own meeting with him. Every day; generally at 9:15. And I've been able to set that time. I want to see him early in the morning because I want to brief [the press] about 11, if I can. I get in early, about 6:30, so I've had a chance to read and catch up on things and am ready to see the President.
Is he businesslike with you?
No, he's very informal. I took karna [deputy press secretary Karna Small] in with me today.Karna was going to brief today. And on the days she briefs I like to let her see him, too, in the morning.
Sometimes he sits behind the desk in the Oval Office, and we either lean on the desk or sit close around. But today he went over to the wing chairs, and we sat on the couch and talked back and forth.
He's always presidential, even within this context of informality. He's not afraid to make decision, and he's not afraid to all to do something that may in the short run be painful if he believes it to be the right thing to do.
Are we going to see further experimentation with press conferences? Or have you got them the way you want them now?
We are not running a race track. But we reserve the right to do a lottery again at some point.
The next press conference will be going back to what we did the first time. Just the raising of hands from the press. We just won't call on people who shout.
All the feedback I got was that the press liked it -- the quiet press conference. The press looked good. Politicians aren't the only ones who suffer from an image problem lem. And when the President and the press yell at each other, it doesn't help either in the eyes of the public.
What kind of a relationdhip do you feel you have with the press?
It is beginning to sort out very well. AT first, there was a problem. We did change some things that had become ingrained. For example, we thought that reporters didn't have to run around here in tank tops and the like.
Has the post-Watergate adversarial feeling on the part of the press toward the office of the President ended? And, if so, why?
I think it has diminished but that it is still there. It's because there's a president here that the press knows doesn't have a paranoid bone in his body. They know that he likes the press. He likes people who challenge him intellectually, who have fresh ideas. He loves the give-and-take.
What kind of press has the President had thus far?
He thinks it has been positive. On balance, we have been reported fairly and we've been reported accurately.
Have there been some stories that you and the President have questioned, where you think there was unfairness, or inaccuracy, or bias?
There are individual ones, but you don't remember them. There isn't a mind-set in this presidency toward remembering what is said and written.
You could write something very critical about him. Maybe it would be right, maybe it would be wrong. Let's say, as a worst case, that it is wrong. It's like water off a duck's back as far as the President is concerned.
Then this President isn't going to have an 'enemies list' among those in the news media?
But might there be some writers he won't read as quickly as others?
Untrue. Because one of the things he likes to see is how stories are played. And he wants to see the unfavorable stuff, the stuff that's off the mark, because you have to remember that he is a communicator and he sees a failure on his own part if something that is written is inaccurate.
As you have grown to know the President better in recent weeks, what have you concluded that it is that really moves this man? What's on his mind most of the time?
He has set goals in this administration. And the goals are kind of like the North star that you're steering by. And, you know, there are fluctuations in the wind that try to take his eye off the goal. But he has had a built-in compass these 15, 16years of knowing where he wants to go, the direction he wants to move the country. And even though people try to pull him away, he keeps right on going in that same direction. So that's what he is thinking about most of the time -- accomplishing those goals.
He would like to have a nation that is revitalized economically -- a nation that regain its respect and prestige abroad.