Clinton, Not the Press, Needs Prime-Time Conferences

PRESIDENT Clinton's promise in early August to provide more press conferences is most welcome. And yet....

Mr. Clinton was responding to a question that was more of a comment. The occasion was his third nighttime, prescheduled press conference since he took office. Why, the reporter was asking, did he complain about the way radio talk shows were hammering away at him when he had evening press conferences available to him where he could effectively get back at his critics? Why didn't he have more of them?

The president seemed delighted to get this question. He said that his sparing use of the big press conference was a ``mistake.'' He said from now on, he frequently would use this opportunity to communicate with the public.

The president's decision to meet often with the press is a laudable one. The more press conferences the better. It is the job of reporters to get as much information as we can straight out of the mouth of the nation's chief executive. The press conference is our best opportunity to question him on what he is doing - or not doing.

But Clinton, according to his own count, has had what he and his press people classify as press conferences a total of 73 times already - all except two during the day - before the big press conference the night of Aug. 3. Even former President Carter, who often is cited as being particularly accessible to the press, had held fewer press conferences at a similar point in his administration. Mr. Carter kept close to a schedule of two a month and that seemed fully sufficient to White House reporters at the time. President Bush met frequently with the press too - but fewer than 73 times at around the same time in his presidency.

It is against this backdrop of a president who has been more-than-sufficiently responsive to the press that I am bothered by this announcement that Clinton now will frequently hold evening TV press conferences. He seems bent on using evening TV performances to offset what his critics, such as some of the radio talk- show hosts, are saying about him.

Clinton does get bashed quite badly on these shows. I'm just back from a trip where I was listening to talk radio a lot. Clinton is being hit hard. But he must also know that it's the listeners calling in who are doing most of the complaining about him. There's a question in my mind on how much the talk-show hosts are responsible for this recent bubbling up of public unhappiness with the president.

But back to evening press conferences. Why should the press act as props on a stage for a president who appears to be mainly interested in using his outstanding sales skills to win back the American public?

I'm not naive. All presidents since John F. Kennedy first let the TV cameras in to a press conference have been aware of the political advantages that come from opening up this forum to the public. But I don't remember a former president who openly said he was going to add to his already-sufficient press get-togethers an evening TV forum aimed in large part at image-building.

I'm one of those members of the press who from the beginning has been uncomfortable with the intrusion of TV into the press conference. Immediately, the occasion is turned into a TV show with the questioners taking on roles as actors or props. It's not just the president who plays to the camera; the questioners, too, are mindful of the TV audience, which includes their families and publishers. They naturally want to look good. It is obvious that some make their questions longer than necessary to keep the TV cameras on them.

I'm probably a lone voice in raising questions about why Clinton apparently intends to step up the number of these evening TV extravaganzas. It is true that after his Aug. 3 evening press conference, he reverted to an afternoon meeting with the press last Friday. But it is understood now that he will hold a big evening press conference after he returns from his vacation, probably in early September.

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