No matter where, Bush must meet press

April 10, 2001|By Helen Thomas

WASHINGTON -- It doesn't matter where President Bush holds his news conferences, just so he holds them -- regularly.

Much has been made of his shunning the elegant setting of the East Room of the White House, preferring instead the James Brady S. Briefing Room for his impromptu news conferences in the middle of the day.

So what?

The evening prime-time news conferences have become pompous televised extravaganzas that begin with the president walking down a long red-carpeted corridor, gladiator-style, to face the lions of the press. Reporters are sometimes accused of posturing to hold the limelight.

With all that fanfare, a major announcement is usually expected from the president. Viewers do not realize that, except for CNN, most major television networks refuse to carry live coverage of a news conference without assurance the president will "make news."

Those formal prime-time news conferences are usually limited to 30 minutes under a pact between the White House and the networks. That's so TV viewers won't miss a highly-rated sitcom or sports event.

The most important goal of a news conference is to get the president on the public record on the issues of the day, early and often. While White House press secretaries can brief reporters about the president's views of news developments, nothing can replace hearing it from the president himself.

The news conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned on a regular basis and be held accountable. It is a privilege -- and an indispensable mechanism -- for reporters to be able to question a president. This is the democratic process at its best.

John F. Kennedy was the first president to hold live televised news conferences. Those events were held in the cavernous State Department auditorium and they gave TV viewers the opportunity to see how a president reacts under interrogation. Kennedy used his ready wit to deflect tough questions, and viewers enjoyed the give-and-take.

President Lyndon Johnson detested televised news conferences because he felt they never showed him at his best. He preferred impromptu news conferences in unusual settings. Many were held on his front lawn at the LBJ ranch in Texas. He loved to stage them at different sites.

But his favorite torture was to call for his two beagles and summon reporters out of the pressroom to the circular driveway of the South Lawn for what we irreverently called the "Bataan Death Marches" with the dogs.

Walking at a leisurely pace, Johnson would speak in a low drawl. Reporters and cameramen would scramble to get near him on those walks. He would let his hair down about the pain of carrying on the unpopular Vietnam War. When those marches ended, he would say: "Now you know it's all off the record."

We knew he meant it was OK to write a story -- just don't attribute anything in your article to the president of the United States.

Richard Nixon was masterful at news conferences, holding his own among reporters, who were called the "enemy" or the "newsies" in the Nixon White House. When the Watergate scandal broke, it was a different story. In that tumultuous period, Nixon went for months without holding a news conference and when he did, the East Room seethed with hostile questioning.

Ronald Reagan usually held prime time evening news conferences. He would go off to Camp David for a weekend before a news conference, armed with briefing books the size of telephone books. The books included probable questions and proposed answers.

Both George Bush I and Bill Clinton would pop into the pressroom and take questions for as long as 45 minutes to an hour. The only formality involved aides and the Secret Service agents hanging the presidential seal on the podium and placing the American and presidential flags on the platform. Both presidents were more freewheeling.

President Bush II has been answering questions from reporters on the fly during a picture-taking session in the Oval Office or Cabinet room. He has held two news conferences on short notice in the White House briefing room.

Mr. Bush performed with more ease and was more assertive the second time around. He even seemed to enjoy the banter with reporters and seemed to anticipate questions about the economy and energy, two favorite topics.

As he gains confidence, Mr. Bush undoubtedly will become more adept at fielding complex questions.

It's a two-way street. We learn from his answers and we'll always be ready with a question, no matter when he meets the press.

Helen Thomas is a syndicated columnist and can be reached at 202-298-6920 or at the e-mail address helent@hearstdc.com.

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