Reagan's style with news media: 'Less is more'
Washington — Confronted with a full agenda of issues awaiting a public presidential stamp, the White House will part its carefully controlled curtain around the chief communicator himself for a news conference June 16.
It will be President Reagan's third such conference in five months -- a record pace for fewness.
The shooting incident no doubt lengthened the pause -- nearly three months -- since the last televised presidential press conference. The Reagan handlers clearly believe "less is more" as far as this kind of exposure is concerned.
But as summer nears, the administration has begun to feel crowded by the array of duties and involvements of the presidency. And some direct Reagan comment is needed. A week after it happened, there still had been no direct Reagan statement on the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear site.
The dominating of the Washington agenda by the budget and tax battles must soon end, White House officials concede.
"A number of problems will come up this summer: voting rights, foreign policy decisions, other economic issues," says David Gergen, White House staff director and overseer of the Reagan communications effort. "Some people want an energy speech. We have two major decisions to make on defense -- the manned bomber and MX decisions.
"This summer we must announce a nuclear nonproliferation policy, an arms export policy, an immigration policy. A shoe-trade decision has to be made, a multi-fiber agreement. In September, [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig must start the arms talks with [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko. He's in China now."
The Reagan communications strategy calls on the White House and Cabinet heavyweights -- presidential counselor Edwin S. Meese III, chief of staff James Baker III, and the Cabinet officers -- to handle the day-to-day public pronouncements and debate. The President's role is carefully limited to presiding over private Oval Office talks. Photographers and a few reporters are let in before or after such sessions so he can be seen "on the job." Brief quotes are given the press if a presidential attitude needs underscoring.
But the Reagan communications style of controlled access -- saving him for a few major speeches and the announcement of White House decisions -- appears set.
So far, White House insiders and Democratic professionals agree, the tight metering of the President's exposure is working. For one thing, it is helping to preserve the President's personal popularity -- which is running well ahead of public approval of his handling crucial areas like national defense and economic conditions.
Reagan's handlers think they are running "an open White House."
"The critical question is not how many notches you have on your belt with press conferences or press availabilities," Mr. Gergen says. "The public has a full understanding of this administration. The press can talk to people here at the highest level."
He draws a contrast with the Carter White House, where President Carter and press secretary Jody Powell carried the burden of explaining White House positions.
"Reagan's been handicapped to some extent by the shooting," Gergen says. "But we don't have any plans to accelerate his availability to the press -- nothing like a press conference every week, or every month."
Democratic pollster and strategist Michael Barone approves of the careful nurturing of Reagan's visibility so far. "I think they're awfully smart," he says. "The President would be unwise to engage in a lot of off-the-cuff comments. They're trying to be careful about what they say. You make history well that way -- even if it doesn't make good history."
"They have one story to make each day, and they want to make theirm story, not somebody else's," Mr. Barone continues. "They've been masterful at that. Carter didn't know what he wanted to say and he would comment on anything."
Reagan's White House team is essentially the same as the group that seized command of his campaign after Labor Day last year. He began the fall campaign with a series of public "bloopers" over Taiwan and the Ku Klux Klan.
It was then decided that Reagan was shouldering too much of the public campaign load himself and that his tendency to dig in and stubbornly speak his mind was hurting him. "Reagan as California governor could get away with such impromptu remarks," a longtime Reagan supporter said then. "But in the White House the stakes are higher. They can cause tr ouble in international circles."