With Presidents and First Ladies, Getting Up Close Helps

IT'S useful to examine the next day's newspaper transcript of a president's press conference. In doing so I've found that Mr. Clinton's words are spoken in complete, easy-to-read sentences - not like those of Presidents Reagan and Bush, whose utterances were often hard to follow when put on paper.

Yes, Mr. Reagan was the Great Communicator, always very effective orally. But it was only his speeches, which he read, that looked good the next day when they appeared at length in print. Reagan's off-the-cuff responses, while clear enough when he said them, often came off as murky ramblings when, for example, they were printed in a newspaper's excerpts from a press conference.

We all remember that Mr. Bush rather blurted things out - apparently oblivious to whether his sentences had a subject, let alone a predicate.

As a newsman who covered decades of presidential press conferences from practically a front-row seat, I find my present TV ''grandstand'' view less than satisfactory. Television is deceiving. It seems to tell you that you're getting it all. But it misses the flavor of the real thing.

You need to look right into a president's face and watch his reactions to provide an authentic assessment of what is going on. The camera moves (at the camera operator's option) from the president's face to the questioner's face, and then, sometimes, to the full group. When you are there, you can take in the whole scene.

So it is that after watching a Clinton press conference on TV, I will ask reporters who attended, as they arrive at a Monitor breakfast the following day, ''How did you think the president did yesterday?''

I must add that they often will then ask me, ''But how did he look on TV?'' They are fully aware that what the TV audience thinks they see of a president and how they rate his performance are what may really be important - politically, at least.

One of Clinton's answers at the first full press conference he had held in five months was of particular interest to me:

Question: ''Why is it your wife appears to be, arguably, the most controversial first lady, at least in modern times?''

Clinton: ''Since Eleanor Roosevelt. For many of the same reasons, from many of the same sources....''

I remember Eleanor Roosevelt. Here I'm tempted to say, ''And Hillary Clinton is no Eleanor Roosevelt.'' But I won't. Mrs. Clinton has been a powerfully effective voice for women's rights and opportunity just as Mrs. Roosevelt spoke out courageously for blacks.

Both, too, were targets of the right wing.

I remember well the caustic attacks on Mrs. Roosevelt in one Westbrook Pegler column after another. If he couldn't think of anything else, Pegler would portray Eleanor as a silly gadabout, always on the go, always meddling.

My own early estimate of her was negative. I lived under the shadow of the Roosevelt-bashing Chicago Tribune. And the Eleanor Roosevelt I saw on Pathe News at the movies was always rabbit-toothed and shrill-voiced.

But then, in the late 1930s, I heard Mrs. Roosevelt speak at our university auditorium. I was amazed; she was so different from what I had expected.

Her voice was low, and she was so warmly appealing. I remember saying to my companion, ''My, she really is beautiful!'' And Mrs. Roosevelt's message of racial tolerance was quite compelling. The audience was hushed, eager not to miss a word. For me, it was a revealing, get-to-know-you experience.

So, as in news conferences, it is helpful to see a public figure firsthand. We didn't have TV then. But the newsreels weren't getting it right, either.

Mrs. Roosevelt was controversial. But people weren't questioning her credibility - as they are Mrs. Clinton's.

So the president was partly wrong when he said the ''same reasons'' were involved in the controversies involving the two first ladies. But there is much about these first ladies that is the same.

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