Press Conferences: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Whenever the media believe - as they do now - that a president isn't holding enough press conferences, they invariably refer with admiration to Franklin D. Roosevelt's weekly get-togethers with members of the fourth estate.

The Roosevelt period was well before my years as a Washington correspondent when, for much of the time, I attended the daily White House press briefings and sat in the Monitor chair at presidential press conferences. The late Richard L. Strout was the Monitor's man at the White House when Roosevelt was president. In conversations with me, Strout would often hark back to the "good old days" when he and a relatively few other reporters questioned a man who he firmly believed would be rated by history as one of our greatest presidents.

Strout said that Roosevelt actually met with the press twice a week, holding a morning press conference for reporters with afternoon newspapers and then coming back in the afternoon of that same day to respond to the questions of reporters writing for the next morning's papers. I once asked Strout about the number of reporters attending. He said it varied. But I got the impression from Dick that the total would often be around 20. "Nothing like the mob scene we have today," he once told me.

Strout also described a setting that was much different from that of today's televised press conferences. FDR was relaxed, usually jovial, apparently thoroughly enjoying every moment of these encounters.

Roosevelt was always in command, Strout told me. There was never a moment when it wasn't clear to those in attendance that he was the president and expected to be treated like a president. The questions weren't soft, Strout recalled. Instead, they were, as he remembered it, "intelligent and incisive." He said FDR would sometimes ridicule what he called a "dumb" question and, at least once, good-humoredly told a reporter, whose question he thought silly, to "stand in the corner." And, Strout went on, everyone laughed.

As Strout explained it, the FDR press conferences were reported on a background basis - with no direct quotes from the president. This undoubtedly enabled Roosevelt to be more explicit - even more candid - when expressing his views.

BUT now, what do we have in the televised press conferences that the media clamor for? The president takes the podium in a large room crammed full of representatives from print and broadcast media. After a few comments, the questions start coming. They are often loud and impolite. And how those television reporters hang on to the camera with questions that go on and on!

Of course, millions of people are watching from their homes. The president looks out at them as he responds, knowing there will be an immediate public reaction to every word. Therefore he's very cautious. Indeed, he's spent hours in preparation, or, if he's like Ronald Reagan, he's had a dress-rehearsal session in advance.

So the press conference, by being put on TV, has been elevated (or, rather, lowered) to show business. The reporters try to impress their publishers and families, often by showing how they can stand right up to the president with tough questions. And the president has to remain exceedingly guarded in his remarks.

Why should we have an increased number of these TV spectacles? Of course, I don't advocate doing away with TV press conferences. Despite their razzle-dazzle, something important takes place at these gatherings: The president is meeting with the media and talking to the media - and, in this way, being held accountable by the media.

But let's have these press conferences sparingly and, at the same time, increase the number of presidential interviews with individuals and groups in the press. In that kind of an off-stage context, the president would be more relaxed, more himself, and, I contend, more likely to be a better communicator - more likely to tell us what he really has on his mind.

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