People asking questions are no more than scenery

ROGER SIMON

March 24, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Wasn't it great that Bill Clinton went on live TV yesterday?

L What's that? You weren't aware he has ever been off live TV?

Well, I don't blame you. Since his election, rarely a day has gone by when Bill Clinton has not dominated the news. This is no accident.

In the modern world there is no difference between running for office and serving in office: each is part of what has become an endless campaign.

The shaping of the image, the selling of the program, the spinning of the message never stops. The only difference is how you package it.

In the 63 days since his inauguration, Clinton has been packaged in several ways: in public forums, in formal speeches, in question-and-answer sessions with school children, and in informal press conferences.

But, as the White House press corps kept pointing out, Clinton had never conducted a formal, live, reporters-only, fancy, East .. Room, crystal chandelier, naked cherubs on the ceiling press conference.

Which had been the longest drought in modern U.S. history. (Dwight Eisenhower didn't have a press conference for 33 days following his inauguration, but that may have been because nobody wanted to ask him anything.)

To the White House staff this was no big deal. Whether questions are asked by reporters at a formal event or ordinary citizens at a forum in Detroit, it is all the same to them: The questioners are just scenery.

And you decide each day what kind of scene you want to set the president in: The school children scene? The blue-collar scene? The hurried question-on-the-go scene?

Yesterday, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin needing a boost in some formal way, the White House wanted a formal scene.

And so Bill Clinton held his first formal press conference and got what he expected: Nearly one-third of the questions were on Russia.

Clinton had been briefed by his foreign policy staff before the press conference began, but he did not rehearse.

"No," Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said when asked if Clinton had "practiced" for the press conference. "He does this all the time. Are you kidding? He's used to it."

He is. He would have to be. A modern presidential campaign is so gruesomely long that by the time you are elected, you have gone through hundreds of call-in shows, debates, forums, and ask-the-candidate evenings.

But a modern presidency is also about control. And press conferences can't be controlled, can they?

L Sure they can. While reporters can ask anything, they don't.

Clinton got eight questions on Russia, four on what kind of Supreme Court justice he wants, three on gays in the military and two on health care. The rest of the questions were scattered among eight other predictable subjects.

(OK, the question on whether Clinton wanted to meet with Fidel Castro was not predictable. His answer was, however: No.)

Also, the press no longer controls when the press conference will end. In the old days, the senior White House correspondent would call out, "Thank you, Mr. President!"

Yesterday, Dee Dee Myers called out: "Last question!"

And Clinton controlled, of course, how long he would spend on each question. Though Clinton got three questions on gays in the military, he kept his answers very short and kept his left index finger moving until he found reporters with questions more to his liking.

There were very few follow-up questions, not even when Clinton gave the press the opportunity.

Take his response when he was asked what kind of views he wanted his Supreme Court nominee to have.

"I would not, for example, knowingly appoint someone that did not have a very strong view about the First Amendment's freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom of speech provisions," Clinton said.

There is one other provision in the First Amendment, however: freedom of the press. And wouldn't it be nice to know whether Clinton wants his nominee to care about that one?

Clinton, who did very well at his his first formal press conference, RTC said he liked it and wanted to do it again "sometime."

When exactly?

Exactly when it's useful to him. And not a moment before.

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