Why Reagan plays down presidential press conferences

At a critical moment of the Reagan presidency the White House is deliberating on how to communicate with the public. Mr. Reagan is scheduled to go to the nation this week to explain the nature of his revised economic and budget program. He has chosen to do this by direct television explanation, his forte. This may be backed up later by televised press conferences, with Washington reporters asking specific questions.

But after eight months in office, the President has had only three such formal press conferences in Washington -- a fact which has prompted many in the news media to ask if the President is moving away from the press conference to the more direct forms of communicating with the public.

In addition to the three news conferences in Washington, Mr. Reagan held a fourth gathering with the press Aug. 13 at his ranch in California. He has also given 18 exclusive interviews and held 7 group meetings. He has made prepared speeches and shouted answers to questions with a wave of the hand as he left or entered his helicopter. But no formal pattern has yet emerged of communicating to the public on a regular basis.

Comparison with former chief executives points up a sharp contrast between the Reagan communications strategy and that of his predecessors.

At this point in his incumbency Franklin Roosevelt had held about 50 of his twice-a-week press conferences. But these were not on radio or television, and the President could not be quoted directly except by special permission. Roosevelt's cozy, intimate affairs with reporters bunched against his littered desk in the Oval Office, established the press conference as a vehicle for American government. They were reminiscent of the question-time period in the British and Canadian parliaments, but far different from the media event they were to become.

Harry Truman moved conferences from the Oval Office to the Cabinet Room, and then to the Indian Treaty Room or the auditorium of the Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. At one point President Kennedy held them in the State Department auditorium. Mr. Truman also created a more formal and structured relationship.

General Eisenhower, through his press secretary James Hagerty, allowed motion picture cameras to show selected parts of the press conference, and he later made them available for television. For the first time the average American family could see the President questioned right before its eyes.

The White House began releasing transcripts from press conferences after an enterprising secretary from the Washington bureau of this newspaper began transcribing and circulating them independently.

Unlike parliamentary governments the American democracy is president-oriented , and the personal authority of the chief executive has grown over the years. The Founding Fathers certainly did not anticipate television. From the time when reporters had to submit questions in advance in the 1920s and 1930s, to an "official spokesman" for Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, to the present, when a president with professional training in Hollywood is directly asked impromptu questions under television lights, the drama of the conference has grown. But it is demanding on the President.

Mr. Reagan has made what some consider gaffes during his press conferences.

At Mr. Reagan's Jan. 30 press conference, for instance, he bitterly assailed the Soviets, charging that "they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime; to lie, to cheat. . . ." This raised eyebrows at the State Department.

At the close of his third Washington press conference, June 16, Mr. Reagan prolonged it to answer a charge by Democratic Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. That he did not know about working people. "I think it is sheer demagogery. . . . Mr. Reagan replied, "to pretend that this economic program . . . is not aimed at helping the great cross section of people in this country that have been burdened for too long by big government and high taxes."

Now he has decided to discuss the crucial issue of the budget in a prepared address.

A press conference takes hours of briefing to prepare the President for questions that may be asked. It also requires the discipline of fixing administration policies in advance on delicate issues. With a mind for detail, President Carter answered questions quickly, but many felt he lacked the charisma to exploit television by making the president seem to towering representative of the people.

The Reagan administration, some feel, has reached a critical point. Political scientist Thomas E. Cronin has noted: "Presidents can hold numerous news conferences during their honeymoon and later, after the idyllic time period has ended, appeal to the people by direct address over the heads of the Washington press, especially when unkept promises or unresolved scandals can make news conferences embarrassing."

The Washington press corps asks uneasily if Mr. Reagan is following that path.

Conferences Score of Presidents Total Number Number of Months in office Roosevelt 998 145 Truman 334 94 Eisenhower 193 96 Kennedy 64 34 Johnson 135 62 Nixon 37 66 Ford 39 30 Carter 59 48 Reagan 3 8

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