Weekly news conference should be Clinton goal ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

December 04, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to news conferences, the new president will meet the press more often than did Ronald Reagan, and less often than did George Bush.

So says George Stephanopoulos, his director of communications.

Reagan held 48 news conferences in eight years -- an average of one every two months -- to about 130 in four years by Bush, or nearly three a month. Compared with Reagan's sparse availability, Bush was practically a pest around the White House press room.

But if Clinton decides to reduce his own formal appearances before reporters below the Bush performance, it is likely only to fan concerns already raised during the 1992 campaign about his willingness to face questions regularly in a prearranged, formal format.

Clinton is obviously a most gregarious sort. But after the gamut of intense investigation and interrogation he encountered early in the 1992 primaries, he became more wary and protective of himself. He had, no doubt, considerable reason, especially when the supermarket tabloids were in full pursuit of him.

Reporters traveling with Clinton were able to catch a word or two from him as he left his campaign plane or came out of a building, but most times it was on the fly. Television cameramen would crowd around and only a few reporters with the sharpest elbows were able to get within hearing range.

On the plane, only rarely would Clinton come to the rear where the news-gatherers sat to have anything resembling a detailed talk. More often, he might show up at the plane's galley for a few minutes before takeoff to field a handful of questions, or just pass some time.

In today's politics, it has become a cardinal rule for candidates to beware of the spontaneous comment, particularly when cameras and tape recorders are whirring. Understandably, they don't want to say anything that will provide fodder for the opposition. And this was especially so for Clinton, who knew that the Bush campaign was looking desperately for material with which to attack him.

In the presidency, however, circumstances and responsibilities change. While a sitting president is also subject to partisan criticism, he needs to communicate what he is doing, and intends to do, to the electorate. Bush's failure to do precisely that concerning the state of the economy cost him dearly on Nov. 3.

There are, to be sure, many ways to carry out such communications, and Clinton as candidate embraced most of them, from "town meetings" with voters to the television morning and evening news shows to the entertainment talk shows. All these venues are valid and important in addressing the public.

But the formal presidential news conference has its own essential role. Reporters who are usually well-versed in the subjects at hand have the opportunity to pose specific questions about the issues of the day, including the president's handling of them. To perform their role adequately, it is important that the reporters know that the president will be available to them at regular intervals, and that not too much time will pass between each opportunity so that the president can be held accountable for his actions.

Absent a formal schedule for news conferences, too many presidents have been able in times of political trouble simply to duck the press, and hence the public. During Watergate, Richard Nixon did so extensively. So did Reagan as new questions about the Iran-contra affair were raised and went unanswered. By the time the next news conference rolled around, other events often crowded out such questions.

In explaining Clinton's thinking about news conferences, Stephanopoulos said the president-elect wants to "go out and meet the press on a regular basis; that way you do it when you have something to say." That's fine from the president's viewpoint, but there will be times when he won't want to say something but events and circumstances demand a public accounting. And that's the best argument for having Clinton do a little more than Bush in this regard, not less.

The new president has an opportunity to institutionalize the news conference as a regular weekly event. He obviously has

the self-confidence. All he needs is the will.

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