Fear of Open Government

March 22, 1993

As of this writing, President Clinton has yet to hold a full-fledged White House press conference.

By this time in 1989, George Bush had held three presidential press conferences; by this time in 1981, Ronald Reagan had held two meetings with the press; by this time in 1977, Jimmy Carter had held four press conferences. Even Richard Nixon, never comfortable with journalists, had held one formal meeting with the press at this stage of his presidency in 1969. And John Kennedy, who began the practice of live, televised presidential press conferences, had held seven.

It seems to us President Clinton's record suggests not just disdain for the press but, as Mark Hertsgaard put it in "On Bended Knee," his book analyzing Ronald Reagan's retreat from press conferences and other tactics for manipulating public opinion, "A fear of open government and accountable democracy."

The public, which does not regard the press, especially the Washington press corps, with much love, still recognizes that a president ought regularly to take tough questions from informed insiders such as those who attend White House press conferences. The public wants and needs to see its president defend and explain his policies in unrehearsed fashion, in an environment he does not completely control. It may not be a coincidence that this president, who has held fewer press conferences -- none -- than any predecessor at a comparable date, has the lowest positive rating and highest negative rating in the polls of any president at a comparable date:

According to the Gallup Poll, President Clinton's approval/disapproval rating is now 53/34. George Bush's first Ides-of-March rating was 56/16; Ronald Reagan's was 60/24; Jimmy Carter's, 70/9; Richard Nixon's, 65/9, and John Kennedy's 73/7.

The president and his communications aides seem to believe that talk shows, radio addresses and a high-tech public relations blitz (including their own C-SPAN "network") can replace White House press conferences. They are wrong.

The White House press corps may need to come up with a new and improved way of questioning the president in public. Perhaps institutionalizing an idea that has intrigued presidents and reporters in the past -- press conferences focusing on a single topic or area of activity.

Most journalists, like the public, dislike bad press conferences, with prima donnas and parochial questioners dominating the give and take, but both journalists and the public know that even bad press conferences are better than none.

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