The press, Ike, and JFK

President Eisenhower thrust out his jaw, his pink face reddening, his fists clenched - reporter Sarah McClendon had asked another of her questions. It was April of 1958, the country was in recession. Why didn't the administration act, the uninhibited, unabashed Sarah demanded to know.

Ike exploded. ''Now look . . . ,''

A week later, however, the President was pointedly calm when a reporter asked what he thought about press conferences.

''Well, now, Mr. Folliard (Edward Folliard of the Washington Post), here is a funny thing. I think I like these press conferences. True,'' he continued, ''some of the questions seemed inconsequential - a little more personal than they need be.'' So what, he said in effect: The institution is here to stay, and ''with each president it has undergone some innovations.''

I am reminded of this by two incidents: a recent TV show giving press conferences of President John F. Kennedy (where I thought another fine reporter, May Craig, stole the show) and a current cover story in Time magazine: ''Accusing the Press; What Are Its Sins?'' (Dec. 12).

Does the press go too far? That, in essence, is what Time asks in its 10-page clinical examination. Is the American press too flip, too undisciplined, too disrespectful in its bumptious manner? In the Grenada invasion the US military did not allow the reporters to go ashore with the troops. This offended a lot of journalists. (Me, for example, remembering having watched our boys go ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day, in June 1944, and indignant that, as Time put it, the ''Reagan administration invaded Grenada and excluded reporters from the scene.'')

The Time article reads great significance in this. The Grenada dispute ''seemed to uncork a pent-up public hostility'' to the press, it says. It cites findings of the National Opinion Research Center intended to measure ''public confidence'' in various professions, giving medicine a high mark at 52.3 percent but dumping the ''press'' (poor thing!) down at only 13.7 percent. This is hardly above ''federal government executives,'' 13.3 percent, and ''Congress'' at 10.2 percent!

My own opinion is that the press is more reliable than it was half a century ago. I turn back to the classic ''Washington Merry-Go-Round,'' written anonymously in 1931 by Robert S. Allen (then head of The Christian Science Monitor Washington news bureau) and Drew Pearson, then working for the Baltimore Sun. It was the day of the imperial press lords. There were Hearst and McCormick and Patterson, and their political bias in some cases was passionate. The upstart young editors of ''The Washington Merry-Go-Round'' argued that there ''never was a time when an enlightened, liberal, and intrepid press was more urgently and vitally demanded in the interest of good government in the United States.''

Well, maybe. The press today is less biased but more trivialized than it was before television: Now the public has a second measure of news besides the printed word. Few other great educational institutions have been so profoundly changed.

Oh - a final word about Jack Kennedy, and prim, pert reporter May Craig (in her invariable tricorn hat) stoutly asking questions at press conferences in the early '60s. The President pitted his lively wit against her sharp but not unsympathetic queries. The Kennedys brought to the White House a sense of style: The Kennedy-Craig exchanges were not confrontational, as when Sarah McClendon challenged Ike. Rather they were tart, witty, insouciant - each having a good time. It is good to remember them in the Kennedy myth and legend.

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