President Clinton's promise in early August to provide more press conferences is most welcome. And yet. . . .
Clinton was responding to a question that was more of a comment. Why, the reporter was asking, did he complain about the way radio talk shows were hammering away at him when he had evening press conferences available to him where he could effectively get back at his critics? Why didn't he have more of them?The president seemed delighted to get this question. He said that his sparing use of the big press conference was a "mistake." He said from now on, he frequently would use this opportunity to communicate with the public.
The president's decision to meet often with the press is a laudable one. The more press conferences the better. It is the job of reporters to get as much information as we can straight out of the mouth of the nation's chief executive. The press conference is our best opportunity to question him on what he is doing - or not doing.
But Clinton, according to his own count, has had what he and his press people classify as press conferences a total of 73 times already - all except two during the day - before the big press conference the night of Aug. 3. Even former President Carter, who often is cited as being particularly accessible to the press, had held fewer press conferences at a similar point in his administration. Carter kept close to a schedule of two a month and that seemed sufficient to White House reporters at the time. President Bush met frequently with the press too - but fewer than 73 times at around the same time in his presidency.
It is against this backdrop of a president who has been overly responsive to the press that I am bothered by this announcement that Clinton now will frequently hold evening TV press conferences.
Clinton is being hit hard. But he must also know that it's the listeners calling in who are doing most of the complaining about him.
But back to evening press conferences. Why should the press act as props on a stage for a president who appears to be mainly interested in using his sales skills to win back the American public?
I don't remember a former president who openly said he was going to add to his already-sufficient press get-togethers an evening TV forum aimed in large part at image-building.
I'm one of those members of the press who from the beginning has been uncomfortable with the intrusion of TV into the press conference. Immediately, the occasion is turned into a TV show with the questioners taking on roles as actors or props. It's not just the president who plays to the camera; the questioners, too, are mindful of the TV audience. They naturally want to look good.
I'm probably a lone voice in raising questions about why Clinton apparently intends to step up the number of these evening TV extravaganzas. It is true that after his Aug. 3 evening press conference, he reverted to an afternoon meeting with the press. But it is understood now that he will hold a big evening press conference after his vacation, probably in September.