The President's disinclination to have a lot of TV press conferences is based simply on his actor's judgment. He is known to feel that they can lead quickly to television overexposure. And he may well be right.
Critics from the media now are saying that the President simply isn't having enough press conferences. Some are pointing to the past and the numerous, twice-a-week meetings FDR used to have with the "boys", as he called them.
"By now he would have had about 60 press conferences," a veteran reported said, recalling how frequently Roosevelt met with reporters after assuming the presidency.
But Roosevelt had no TV cameras on him -- or the American people as his audience -- when he conferred with the press. Instead, he quite informally called them aside for give- and-take in his office. FDR was usually quite informative. He often was a light mood, bantering with his questioners. And accounts of these get-togethers indicate that he was quite relaxed, speaking freely, sometimes on sensitive subjects.
But what present-day critics don't mention too often is that Roosevelt was always protected from direct quotes. And he had to be referred to with an artifice, such as "a spokesman of the President."
Among reporters there seems to be almost a consensus that says the President is remiss if he doesn't have frequent press conferences. But there seems to be little awareness in the media of the decided difference between the President years ago discussing issues and taking questions from representatives of the press and by TV press conferences of today which really are "public conferences" between the President and the American people.
These TV "public conferences" are essentially television shows. The questioners become instant actors, once they see those video cameras. That's why they yell so loudly to be recognized: they want center stage.
And even when they must keep quiet and civilized, under the Reagan rules, the reporters still don't ask the same kind of questions or in the same way they would if they were involved in an authentic, old-time press questioning of the President.
Some of the media are self-conscious. Some are show-offs. They just are not at their best in this artificial context.
Some Presidents appear to thrive in a TV press conference. Kennedy did. And there was no indication that the audience was tiring of him. But it must be remembered that Kennedy wasn't President long enough to be really tested as to whether he could keep on with these performances without finally suffering from overexposure. Video audiences become weary finally of very interesting people -- even very photogenic people.
Presidents often say they "like" these "public conferences." They think they are good on TV. Some even think they can "play off" questions in ways that endear them with their vast audiences.
It is understood, however, that President Reagan believes that TV press conferences can only be a plus for him if he doesn't overdo them. Also, the Reagan point of view, as expressed by some of his associates, is that he thinks that the possibility of a President suffering video overexposure are greater in the press conference than when he is delivering a speech on television.
Here the question should be raised: Why should we care if a President becomes "overexposed" on TV? Well, if part of that process is a disclosure -- an unveiling of weaknesses of a President that we didn't already know about or of information that would not otherwise have surfaced -- then the public clearly should welcome that "overexposure." But how often has that happened? TV doesn't make a politician more forthcoming under questioning. It's probably just the other way around.
However, a President to get things done must guard his influence which stems directly from public confidence. And if going on TV a lot simply causes people to grow tired of seeing him and to tend to feel he is a little uninteresting then a President is losing something valuable -- his ability to be effective, his capacity for galvanizing public support behind his initiatives.
So here is where we come out on this subject:
Let's have a President who does, indeed, meet frequently with the press, including TV representatives but away from the video cameras.Perhaps he could do this once a week.
And then, at his pleasure, let the President schedule, along with his other television appearances, these big TV spectaculars which have com e to be called press conferences.