To ask Bush a question, wait your turn

With a new administration comes a new style of managing the press. Short, orderly sessions are in.

Clearly, the "bumblebee" strategy doesn't work with George W. Bush.

That was my near-foolproof method of getting President Clinton to take my question at those crowded press conferences in the East Room. Taking a cue from veteran reporter Helen Thomas and her signature red dress, I too acquired a press-conference uniform: a bright yellow pantsuit with black buttons (hence, the bumblebee image).

It also paid to be constantly buzzing - I'd wave my arm every time the loquacious Mr. Clinton even glanced in my direction, then rise three-quarters out of my chair the second he pointed to my area. In a business where possession is nine-tenths of the law, the first reporter standing almost always had the floor.

But this tactic is a nonstarter with a president whose approach to the media is far more disciplined than was his predecessor's. With President Bush, there's no advance notice for wardrobe planning - or any other preparation. Correspondents got the alert to last week's conference (his second so far) a mere 36 minutes before the event.

More important, this president brooks no interruptions. When reporters tried the shouting-and-waving game before he was finished speaking, he shot them a blistering look, holding up his hand for silence.

With every new administration comes an adjustment in the tempo and style of that delicate dance between the White House and the press. Both sides must learn new steps, and both tussle to take the lead. Especially in these first few months, the matter of who has the upper hand can be of tremendous consequence to a president eager to enact his programs.

"Control is the name of the game," says Robert Denton, author of a book on Ronald Reagan and television. It's simple, he says: If Bush can control the message, he can better control his agenda.

So far, the administration's effort to gain control is manifest in ways large and small: 30-minute press conferences in the intimate, 48-chair briefing room, instead of hour-long sessions in the expansive and formal East Room. Brevity, instead of long Clintonian riffs that could get a president in trouble. A mostly leak-free White House. An unwavering determination to stay on message (and, like President Reagan, a conscious choice to focus on only a handful of issues). And no - absolutely no - interruptions from cellphones or pagers.

"The Bush White House has ... a relentless desire to make sure that the agenda and the issues they discuss are on their own terms," says Alexis Simendinger, who covers the White House for the National Journal, a Washington political magazine.

But this grip won't last forever, say reporters and outside observers. Indeed, with events in China, the Mideast, and on Capitol Hill presenting unexpected challenges, the handhold is already slipping.

"The problem is that, inevitably - as they've learned in the past couple of weeks - you can't [control the story] consistently," says Ms. Simendinger. "If you don't tell your story, someone else will tell your story for you," she adds.

Case in point: Christine Todd Whitman's memo to the president on global warming, one of the few leaks to spring from this administration so far.

The March 6 memo, obtained by the Washington Post, revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency chief had urged Mr. Bush to "continue to recognize that global warming is a real and serious issue," just one week before he reversed his campaign promise to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

As time goes on, the potential for leaks from disgruntled officials will likely increase - but so will competition from other news. This week, the president has been distracted from his tax-cut message by the US spy plane in China. Last week, it was campaign-finance reform.

Considering his opposition to the reforms pushed through by his one-time rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), it's not surprising Bush wanted to avoid that topic - which is exactly what he did. Even though campaign-finance reform was the biggest story going last week, the president refused to answer questions on the subject at a photo-op with Republican lawmakers.

"I'm talking about the budget today, not Congress," he said.

Of course, it's a president's prerogative to answer in any way he chooses. And, as longtime CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller points out, to some extent all presidents want to hold the media at arm's length - with good reason. "We're not here to be their buddies," he says.

No reporter who was around when Clinton first took office could forget that administration's initial decision to block access to the press secretary's West Wing office. (After sparking a near revolution, the decision was reversed.)

Yet presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar detects a difference in the way Democrats and Republicans manage the press. Democrats, she says, see government as a problem-solver, and to that end, constantly troll for new ideas, input, and feedback. That attitude breeds leaks and talkative aides. It's hard to imagine the Bushes, for instance, giving investigative reporter Bob Woodward free rein in the White House the way the Clintons did (a decision they later came to regret).

Republicans extol the virtues of limited government, and that leads to a minimalist approach to information. As a senior administration official explains, the Bush White House won't talk about policy with reporters until it's already been decided on within the administration.

Eventually, says Ms. Kumar, Democrats usually realize they have to tighten up, while Republicans discover it's impossible to control information to the extent they'd like.

In the meantime, the White House press corps is giving this administration high marks for punctuality, affability, and its egalitarian treatment of reporters.

The Bush people "are basically civil to us and accept our being, which a lot of White Houses haven't," says Ms. Thomas.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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