Skip Clinton's barbecue the press wants real meat

ROGER SIMON

June 16, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Bill Clinton became the first president in history Monday to call a press conference and then refuse to answer a single question.

Many presidents have refused to answer questions in the past. But Clinton is the first to ask reporters over to his house so he could do so.

At 10:26 a.m. Monday, the White House sent out an electronic "news advisory" stating: "President Clinton will hold a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House at 2 p.m. today (June 14) to announce his nominee to the Supreme Court."

It was not to be a photo opportunity at which reporters are forbidden to ask questions (though they do anyway.)

It was to be a real press conference. And though Washington terminology sometimes can be confusing (the difference between "deep background" and "deep, deep background" eludes many) a presidential press conference is universally accepted as reporters asking questions and presidents answering them.

And just the evening before, President Clinton, his wife, and his press staff had gone to great lengths and great (public) expense to woo the press at a barbecue on the South Lawn of the White House.

An estimated 800 reporters and guests showed up to shake the president's hand, listen to a live performance by Jimmy Buffett, and eat and drink to their hearts' (and consciences') content.

The White House staffers even did a little skit poking fun at their poor relations with reporters and Clinton said: "The only condition I put on this barbecue when I learned you were coming was I not be put on the spit."

It was a pleasant and charming evening, but some reporters felt the message being delivered by the White House was: "Please don't hurt us anymore."

So it was logical that the president would hold a press conference the next day when he announced his choice for the Supreme Court, his most important personnel decision since asking Hillary to marry him.

And it was logical that the press would show up prepared to ask questions. According to the New York Times, when George Bush announced the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the court, Bush took 23 questions from reporters about the court and then answered questions on several other topics.

But then Bush always was more comfortable with the help.

At the Rose Garden ceremony on Monday, Clinton spoke briefly and then his nominee, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, spoke in a deliberate, but impressive fashion.

And at the end of her speech, she moved Clinton to tears (or at least tear) by thanking her mother, "the bravest and strongest person I have known, who was taken from me much too soon."

The president then called upon ABC's Brit Hume for the first question.

Hume's question was pointed, but phrased politely. He asked Clinton to explain if his selection of a nominee had a "zigzag quality" to it.

Clinton's mouth tightened. "I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you turning any substantive decision into anything but political process," he said. "How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me. Good-bye. Thank you."

And then Clinton turned away and refused to take any more questions.

Mark Gearan, Clinton's spokesman, later explained the president's behavior by saying Ginsburg's speech "was a very moving moment" and that the question "almost diminished the great moment that really was happening in the Rose Garden."

But then why did Clinton call upon Hume at all? Had he really expected Hume to say: "I am deeply moved, Mr. President, and I would just like to ask what we, as Americans, can do to love our mothers even more?"

Presidents stand before reporters to answer questions, whether those questions are "moving" or passionless.

Reporters stand before presidents in part to ask questions that clear away a little of the emotional fog that modern political staffs are so good at laying down.

Yesterday, Clinton went before the press again just to show there were no hard feelings. But if the White House is trying to decide between more barbecues or more press conferences, I would like to cast this vote:

Hold the potato salad, Mr. President. And answer the questions.

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