WHEN George Bush left the White House briefing room after his first official press conference, reporters were fairly impressed. The President was relaxed, funny, informative, cooperative. He knew people's names. He fielded questions for 42 minutes - longer than any Reagan encounter with Washington's voracious journalists. ``He showed himself to be in touch with almost everyone that asked questions,'' commented Matthew Quinn of the Hearst Newspapers after the event. ``He's using accessibility to show that he has his hands on everything. That helps him and it's good for us, because it helps illuminate the public.''
The relief felt by the news media after the Reagan era is palpable. The Reagan White House elevated orchestration of the news to an unparalleled height. President Reagan himself held only 48 formal televised news conferences during eight years and gave the media less access than many previous chief executives. His unfamiliarity with facts and tendency to stumble in public appearances prompted his media handlers to keep to a minimum anything but carefully scripted events.
Yet in a tour de force of media manipulation, the White House created and sustained an effective image of presidential presence and leadership.
While pleased at the style of openness and accessibility that Mr. Bush is setting early in his presidency, veteran reporters remind themselves that the Reagan era was really an aberration. What is happening now is a return to something more normal and should not seem so unexpected.
``Reagan so lowered our standards that we think this is something wonderful,'' remarks Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News. ``Only Reagan needed to have cue cards and seating lists - otherwise, politicians know people's names and how to answer questions.''
As the President deftly woos the press in these early weeks, media specialists note that any president has to manipulate the media, since they are his conduit to the public. Bush is no exception. During the campaign Bush was compelled to counter the public image that he was a ``wimp.'' Hence his negative ads against Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis and the Rambo-like image he sought to project. He kept the press at bay.
Now Bush is embarked on another phase, say media experts, trying to show he is a hail-fellow-well-met and cares about the needs of the press.
``Clearly he has decided to use Reagan as a foil, for he knows what irritated the press about Reagan,'' says S. Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. ``So he's giving them access, making things more informal, and saying he likes them and is `one of the fellows.'''
As long as there are no policy controversies or criticisms of his programs (still to be announced), it all seems to be working well for Mr. Bush. Countless stories have appeared about his efforts to give the press more access and to be more forthcoming.
But few observers in Washington say the honeymoon will last. At the first major White House mistake, the adversarial, if respectful, relationship that naturally exists between press and president will quickly emerge.
``It's easy to meet on friendly terms when there's no record to defend,'' says Stephen Hess, a media analyst at the Brookings Institution. ``But when you get the first leak or scandal, the press looks less attractive.''
Before that happens, Bush appears to be storing up capital with the news media. ``The question is whether he will build a residue of good will that will carry him through the crises,'' Mr. Lichter says. ``He's trying to build up a buffer so when the fall comes he'll have something soft to land on.''
Comments Martha Kumar, a media specialist at Towson State University: ``There's a tendency of political figures to look at relations in personal terms. But that will not matter - it's what Bush does. When things sour later on, he'll try to establish the good old times.''
Dr. Kumar points out that unlike Reagan, who had been an executive much of his life and whose public statements were marked by clarity and simplicity, Bush is trying to present himself as someone different from a vice-president or a department head. So he is creating a different kind of style, one less interested in offending people and wanting to be more of a ``healer.''
The President's openness and unostentatious style is being worked on members of Congress as well the press. One news report quotes him as telling lawmakers to call him ``George.'' Whether such familiarity suits the office and benefits Bush in the long run is open to question, however.
``If you strip the presidency of its mystique, no one will listen to you,'' Kumar says. ``Carter learned that.''
For the moment Bush is ingratiating himself around town - not least of all with journalists. A variety of formats are being tried out, including visits in the Oval Office with two or three reporters at a time, unscheduled appearances in the White House briefing room, and what are expected to be full-dress televised press conferences in prime time.
In his press conference Jan. 27, Bush quickly showed that he understood reporters' interest in follow-up questions. At one point he stopped to interject, ``What would be the fair and noble way to handle follow-up questions as we do these things? Would it be good to have them or not have them?''
``There should be two follow-ups,'' one reporter shot back.
``Yes, one follow-up,'' shouted another.
After some banter back and forth, the President insisted: ``No, seriously, ... I want some advice.''
He got it. ``Come back every day!'' cried a voice.
Not even George Bush is expected to go that far.