President and press: duet during crisis

Iwish President Reagan would have more press conferences. The pre-television Franklin Roosevelt had two a week and piled up nearly 1,000, but his were off the record. Dwight Eisenhower had 99 formal press conferences during his first term. Radio and TV are more prevalent now. Ronald Reagan has had only 28 regular press conferences by one score card, although he has informal exchanges and shouts replies to reporters as he boards airplanes, which makes the exact number indeterminate.

We have telecommunication devices these days which keeps Mr. Reagan, the ''great communicator,'' in contact with the public. With our system of centralized government focused on the president, more depends on the press and the president.

How did FDR manage it when he had all those press conferences and you couldn't quote him? Well, it was a developing thing. It began to look as though TV had come to stay; ultimately the cameras were brought right into the process. But before that we could ask direct questions and get direct replies. What we couldn't do was to quote verbatim unless we got specific permission.

It seems incredibly old-fashioned today as I ruffle through yellow clippings of press conferences with FDR. To be specific, here are some of the stories in August 1939 (45 years ago), when Hitler was getting ready to plunge into war and when Congress had passed the Neutrality Act. Factories were building 600 airplanes for the British and 800 for the French, but if war actually broke out before delivery the President was required to clamp down an immediate embargo, Hitler or no Hitler. FDR was doing his best to modify the act while heading off war. Tension, of course, was extraordinary.

How did the press conferences handle the matter?

One story is headlined blandly, ''President Had Feeling Peace Will Prevail.'' It begins, ''President Roosevelt explained to his press conference that he planned to leave for Hyde Park if possible next Monday. . . . He recalled that he had said Aug. 11, but that would call a special session if war were 'imminent.' To avoid any confusion he explained today that he felt the word 'imminent' carried the connotation of certainty. . . .'' The piece seems amazingly subdued in view of the circumstances.

That was how it was done: quoting the President indirectly in a great crisis. Earlier (Aug. 2), Mr. Roosevelt was trying to get through a $2.8 billion lending bill for the democracies, and the House refused, 193 to 166, even to take it up. Here is my account in the Monitor: ''And so yesterday, a scant hour after the House had disdainfully refused even to consider the lending bill, the press found President Roosevelt entirely at ease in his office, chaffing lightly with the front row as other correspondents crowded into the room. His comments on his defeat were good-humored though sharp in their criticisms.''

That crowded room, with FDR behind his desk: How well I remember it! You get the idea. The spot news reports did not carry direct quotations without permission unless written documents were given out, or unless a reporter asked for authority to use a trenchant paragraph. (Roosevelt would glance at Steve Early, the press secretary, probably receive a nod, and then give or withhold permission.) In addition to spot news coverage there was editorial analysis. I had this to say in the Monitor Aug. 24, trying to answer ''What Will the President Do?'':

''What many readers do not understand even now is that if war actually breaks out, Mr. Roosevelt is automatically required under the Neutrality Act to clamp down an immediate arms embargo against exports of war material - including both military and civilian airplanes. This would be a blow indeed to England and France. The two countries are still weakened in their airforces. The first assault in a new war will assuredly be in the air. . . .''

Things have changed, haven't they? Congress no longer thinks it can keep the US out of Armageddon by stringing a line across history and saying, ''Thou shalt not pass.'' And the TV camera has been trundled into the Oval Office which sees all, records all, and reports all.

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