The Presidential Conference
"The invention of printing added a new element of power to the race. From that hour, in a most especial sense, the brain and not the arm, the thinker and not the soldier, books and not kings, were to rule the world; and weapons, forged in the mind, keen-edged and brighter than the sunbeam, were to supplant the sword and the battle-axe."
Those are the words, 19th Century essayist and author Edwin Percy Whipple used to describe the way the press had started to have a larger influence on the shaping of modern civilization. And although the press conference had not yet seen it's infancy, the early American press would hold enough sway with public opinion that it was no time before politicians, and in particular Presidents of the United States started a love/hate relationship that would blossom into what it is today, a double-edged sword called the modern presidential press conference.
Teddy Roosevelt was the first to really use the press in an attempt to garner some partisan control over how he and his policies were perceived in the news. He used to call his office a "bully pulpit" and would use it to preach his administrative process. He initiated close ties with reporters and treated them as friends. The story of how it started says a lot about TR's grasp of the world around him on several levels. One rainy day at the White House, Roosevelt saw a group of stalwart reporters huddled next to their regular post at the White House gate in the pouring rain. Roosevelt could tell they were miserable, so he had the staff set aside a room specifically for the press. Roosevelt was able to take care of the reporters and grant them access to the White House like they had never enjoyed before. This gained him a lot of good press. In this simple gesture, TR effectively invented the presidential press conference. However, when William Howard Taft became president, the practice would stop until Woodrow Wilson.
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Taft did nothing to encourage the press and would sometimes go out of his way to kill stories. When one reporter told him he was no Theodore Roosevelt, Taft replied he would "try to accomplish just as much without any noise."
It would be Woodrow Wilson who would actually form the press conference as we know it today. Instead of feeding news to the reporters, he would allow them to ask questions and he would supply the answers. It was on this date, March 15, in 1913 that the first regularly scheduled press conference took place. About 125 men attended. And although there is no transcript of that event, there are these words to the press a couple of years later: "A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about." The press has done a great job of chronicling the history of the United States in such a way that those who seek to rewrite history will always be found out.
Wilson's practice of allowing the reporters to pick and choose their questions would later come back to haunt him. Although he did in fact have the ear of the public, he also had to endure questions he would have rather stayed away from. This was particularly true during the development of the League of Nations and Wilson gave up the practice of speaking to the press, and took his case for the League to Congress and established the Committee on Public Information for dispensing his own propaganda. The Committee on Public Information was dismantled in 1918. Thus when Warren Harding came into office, he like Wilson before him, had to reestablish as well as redesign the scheduled press conference.
Harding, who was a former newspaperman, knew several members of the press and genuinely enjoyed their company. When Harding would hold a press conference, there were far too many to take questions from, so Harding set up the practice of all questions being submitted to him in writing before each press conference. This allowed Harding to pick and choose the questions he would answer. He claimed this was because there were too many reporters, foreign and domestic, and it would make more sense to have a cohesive event. In reality, Harding, as any good news editor would, was following TR's former practice of disseminating the news he wanted while maintaining the freewheeling style of Wilson's press conferences. Quid pro quo - although Harding got by with more quip than quid.
The next man to take on the press was Calvin Coolidge. On the surface, you would think Coolidge relished the spotlight. He held seven or eight events a month and over his two terms, he held an astonishing five-hundred and twenty press conferences. He made sure the reporters assigned to him were comfortable both at the White House and during travel. He, like Harding before him timed his sessions so the reporters could make the deadlines for the morning or evening editions. However, like Harding, the back and forth sessions were more back than forth. Coolidge was even mort assertive in his authority over the press conference. He would look over the pre-written questions and sometimes, he would read a question aloud before - without comment - he would place it on the bottom of the stack, never to be heard again. Coolidge did take the process a little closer to the future by allowing several follow-up questions. This would carry over into Herbert Hoover's administration and flourish even more until a fateful day in October, 1929.
Hoover met with reporters on the very day of his inauguration and said that with him would begin "a new phase of press relations." He had the reporters elect their own committee to meet with the President to discuss improvements in the press conference. Hoover abolished the "White House spokesman" and allowed reporters to directly quote him and he distributed handouts of statements he would read to the press . He, did however, still require written questions in advance. This continued throughout the first 120 days of Hoover's administration and during that time, he held more frequent and regular press conferences than any President before or since. Then came October 29, 1919 - Black Tuesday.
There were immediate changes in the procedures for a press conference. He broke the then established rule of equal access and, like Teddy Roosevelt had been prone to do, began screening out those reporters he was suspicious of. Cancellations of scheduled press conferences became increasingly frequent . In September, the were effectively over. . While Coolidge had ignored some questions, Hoover even had the audacity to deny ever receiving certain questions in spite of the word of several respected reporters. Transcripts of later Hoover Press Conferences would show him making a few statements, said he had received no questions - or in many cases say he wasn't prepared to answer any questions - then telling the reporters they could be dismissed.
Roosevelt had been able to get away with simply passing along statements for his own good.. Teddy could hold their attention and (in many cases) mesmerize members of the press. Hoover lacked both the personality and celebrity of TR. It would take one of Teddy's distant relatives to reign in an era of unprecedented contact between the press and the commander-in-chief.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an extremely intelligent man who witnessed Hoover's poor relationship with the press and was determined to be heard by the general public. He was also smart enough to know that as vicious as many reporters could be, they would also be the first in line to break news that would be good for the morale of a nation. And this was never more important than when facing down Hitler and the relentless power of Japan. FDR held press conferences twice a week, every week. This continued during war and his own declining health for nine-hundred and ninety-two sessions. Roosevelt, like his distant cousin, could charm the press with his easy going manner, a quick wit, and an astounding knowledge of government and the world at large. He turned his press conferences into successful classrooms that educated both reporters and the public at large and thus influencing public opinion. He referred to the press corps as his family.
His ease at manipulating the press belies the opening statement of his very first press conference. "I am told that what I am about to do will become impossible, but I am going to try it."
Despite FDR's efforts to make the reporters feel comfortable and at ease, Roosevelt demanded that the press follow several strict guidelines. Nearly half of FDR's press conferences would begin with with a formal statement with the chosen reporters gathered around his desk in the oval office. Then, according to their rank in the press corps hierarchy, the questions would begin. After the upper echelon of the fifth estate, anyone could ask a question. Depending on the time, each reporter could get three or four turns around the table.
FDR's responses were more to the point and succinct than his predecessors. He began the habit of meeting with his press secretary, Steve Early and other advisors for a half hour before the press conference started. They anticipated questions and set up answers. This would be particularly useful during several sticky moments during World War II. Especially for someone who is thrust into power in the middle of a war.
Harry Truman kept FDR's guidelines for press conferences with just a few changes. Truman only met with the press once a week instead of twice. In addition, with the United States becoming a genuine world power, more foreign and domestic press were clamoring for the ear of the leader of the free world . There were now up to one-hundred and fifty reporters vying for attention at any given moment. Truman made the decision to move his press conferences to the Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building. Truman also started the habit of requesting that reporters identify themselves and their affiliation. His purpose was to make each correspondent responsible for the questions he or she asked
Truman allowed himself to be quoted directly . At times, especially in the beginning, Truman would say what he did not mean to say, and the immediate ramifications demonstrate how much the President's press conference captured the world's ear. An ill-thought out remark about use of atomic weapons prompted Prime Minister Attlee to board a plane to Washington.
Truman would also allow the use of radio tapes for the purpose of delayed broadcasting on occasion. For his last press conference, Truman finally permitted newsreel cameras to capture the moment in time. The formality and increased size of the press conference demanded a lot from Truman but he appears to have done well. Reporters who remember Truman and other President's give Truman the highest marks. William White who was part of the White House press corps from FDR through Ford said of Truman, "He was salty, feisty, and sometimes incautious. I believe, however, that he imparted more solid and legitimate information with less impermissible self-serving than any of the others I have known." But America was about to make another major stride toward the press conferences we know today. Ike would become iconic as the first President to we could see on a regular basis in our very own living rooms.
Dwight David Eisenhower kept some of Truman's arrangements for press conferences including the use of the Indian Treaty Room for the over two hundred reporters, and he let portions of the press conference be taped for radio. By the end of his first year in office he allowed the entire press conference to be taped for radio. However, Eisenhower was a little more stingy with his time - he cut back to two or three meetings with the press per month.
In some ways, quality would take an upper hand to quantity when Eisenhower made the decision to allow television cameras to record the press conference for delayed broadcast. No matter what the print media thought, television was going to make a huge impact on both the way the president is perceived by the people of the United States. Wooden platforms replaced the last two rows of chairs and the TV cameras were given a permanent home at the White House.
The spotlight was now clearly on the president. Unlike Hoover, Ike could not claim he hadn't received the question - the rest if the televised world could see the truth for themselves. No, Eisenhower had his own early version of spin. If he didn't want to answer, he would feign ignorance of the situation. Reporters began prefacing their questions with background material and a brief rundown on the situation. But Eisenhower, ever the slippery General, would ignore such obvious setups by giving an answer to sometimes unasked questions, such as his view of the world at large. This would evolve into the non-answer so many of us are used to today.
Many reporters of that time period look back on Eisenhower and wonder what went wrong. They were never able to stand up to Eisenhower and hold him accountable. But in reality, there probably wasn't much they could do about it. For making such huge strides in letting the public in on the presidential press conference, there was never any real substance. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Clark Mollenhoff - who became good friends with Vice President Richard Nixon and who would later serve as special counsel to him when he was president - wrote of Eisenhower, "No President and White House of my acquaintance ever gave out at once so much and so little."
Up until now, the press conference had been a tool of the president, with the press as willing participants, but this was slowly changing, and because of the television audience, the press conference was evolving away from the control of the president. During his last press conference, Eisenhower was asked if the press had been fair to him, and he replied, "Well, when you come down to it, I don't see what a reporter could do much to a President, do you?" Ike knew who the puppet was and he knew he had been pulling the strings, but the next puppeteer was the first to show pure charisma to a mass audience even as he was cutting some of the puppet strings.
John F. Kennedy came into office and began a three year love affair with the American people. It was relatively easy for Kennedy to establish "Camelot". He was well bred, affable, a war hero, and perhaps more important, he was a younger man with experience as a reporter. He got along well with the press - many of them, especially the TV reporters, were his age - and he had an appreciation for the potential of manipulating public opinion. Kennedy had discovered during the campaign, that the vast majority of the mainstream written press had been in favor of Richard Nixon, while the television reporters and commentators were squarely in Kennedy's corner.
These factors, along with his strong showing against Nixon in the televised debates were some of the points he discussed with his press secretary Pierre Salinger, when they came to the decision to have the press conferences not only televised, but for the first time, televised live. As predicted, this played to Kennedy's favor. The press could no longer filter what the president was saying and from this point forward, it was contingent upon the man in the spotlight to either make or break his case to the public. Deputy Attorney General James Rowe asked JFK about the possibility of misspeaking on television and Kennedy's reply says much of his mistrust of the print journalists, "There may be something to [your concern] but I am convinced that the press will turn against me sooner or later while I am President, and I must have a way to get to the American people. So, therefore, I have to use television to get there so I can speak directly to them when the press is so hostile."
But Kennedy never felt the pressure, he was always relaxed with the press, even in a time of crisis. For an example, listen to this audio of Kennedy's press conference dealing with Cuba and the Bay of Pigs.
Another aspect of allowing television to be a regular player in the press conference led to a decision which carries over to this day - questions from the press pool are taken in a specific order: wire services, broadcast networks, national newspapers, newsmagazines, radio and, lastly, regional newspapers. For several years, the UPI wire service's Helen Thomas always threw out the first question.
Kennedy had 64 Press Conferences in 34 months. And although Lyndon Johnson was never as comfortable with the press as Kennedy, he did manage to hold almost double that amount during his time in the Oval Office. But Johnson was a lot more evasive. He would spend more than a third, sometimes more than half, of the allotted time for the press conferences reading some long drawn out statement. When he did take questions, Johnson's contradictory statements about Viet Nam led to what was called the "credibility gap" between the administration and the press. The press would no longer stand by and let the president of the United States dictate what made the evening news. Johnson's arrogance led Intrepid reporters to start digging even deeper into government.
The heady days of the 1950s were gone. The Viet Nam War, conspiracy theories about JFK's assassination, and racial unrest during the struggle for civil rights turned the nightly newscasts into civics lessons for a now skeptical and quizzical American audience. A once naive nation was maturing. The luster had diminished. The press like the nation felt they were being misled. Reporter Douglas Kiker called Johnson, "arrogant and not to be believed. The President grandly mixes truth, half-truth and non truth and dares you to attempt to isolate them."
But if Johnson started digging the credibility gap, the next president would turn that gap into a chasm.
Richard Nixon believed in the total authority of the presidency, but his imperial attitude carried over from policy to the press conference. Nixon switched the press reception room into the East Room and its elaborate decor. Advisors put Nixon in front of a blue curtain and thought if he got rid of the podium and used a single microphone stand it would make him more appealing to the public. But there wouldn't be a lot of give and take with Nixon and the press. Not only did Nixon insist that press conferences were not the place to discuss serious matters, he held only 39 press conferences. In his first official press conference, he refused to say what he planned to do about inflation . He said that neither domestic nor foreign affairs should be treated in "off-the-cuff responses in press conferences".
Mounting activities in both Vietnam and Cambodia, were bad enough, but after self-bugging and Watergate became public, there was ever more pressure on the press to get answers from Nixon. When Nixon finally relented and held an open air session at San Clemente, CA in August of 1973, all the questions were so hostile and unrelenting that Nixon left the stage before the customary "Thank you, Mr. President". But this wouldn't be the last - nor the worst.
His press conference on October 26, 1973, reached the lowest point in press/president relations. The president's main antagonist during his press conferences was Dan Rather, who could be relentless. The following is a partial transcript:
But I stuck it out, and as a result of that, we not only got our prisoners of war home, as I have often said, on their feet rather than on their knees, but we brought peace to Vietnam, something we haven't had and didn't for over 12 years.
It was a hard decision, and it was one that many of my friends in the press who had consistently supported me on the war up to that time disagreed with. Now, in this instance I realize there are people who feel that the actions that I have taken with regard to the dismissal of Mr. Cox are grounds for impeachment.
I would respectfully suggest that even Mr. Cox and Mr. Richardson have agreed that the President had the right, constitutional right, to dismiss anybody in the Federal Government. And second, I should also point out that as far as the tapes are concerned, rather than being in defiance of the law, I am in compliance with the law.
As far as what goes through my mind, I would simply say that I intend to carry out, to the best of my ability, the responsibilities I was elected to carry out last November. The events of this past week -- I know, for example, in your head office in New York (CBS Headquarters), some thought that it was simply a blown-up exercise; there wasn't a real crisis. I wish it had been that. It was a real crisis. It was the most difficult crisis we have had since the Cuban confrontation of 1962.
But because we had had our initiative with the Soviet Union, because I had a basis of communication with Mr. Brezhnev, we not only avoided a confrontation but we moved a great step forward toward real peace in the Mideast.
Now, as long as I can carry out that kind of responsibility, I am going to continue to do this job.
Later in the same Q & A, Robert Pierpoint asked why reporters seem to upset him and Nixon said it wasn't true and added, "You can't get angry at someone you don't respect ".
While the press conference was a "bully pulpit" for a Teddy Roosevelt, it became a feeding frenzy against a man who had too much to hide, and it was the press that eventually led Nixon becoming the first sitting president to resign from office.
Nineteen days after Nixon resigned, his successor, Gerald R. Ford held his first press conference. In a bit of irony, the same people who compelled Nixon to resign would be behind him escaping the arms of the law. Ford had given several press briefings in the days before his first press conference and he was sure the Nixon issue was in the past. It was out of his hands and Nixon's fate was in the hands of the courts and the special prosecutor. What Ford received during that first press conference was nothing but questions about Richard Nixon. In his autobiography, Ford would later admit that it was this encounter with the press that compelled him to grant Nixon a pardon.
Ford faced a lot of fallout from the pardon and the next few press conferences were simply the press interrogating Ford about the pardon. But he found a way around it. He made the press conferences less formal by moving the chairs closer to the podium to "remove the distance between the press and the president". He also removed the blue curtains that he felt had an "imperial quality" that he was trying to distance himself from. He then turned the room about so he would stand before the open doors that lead to the red-carpeted Grand Entrance Hall. Ford believe this would make for a much friendlier atmosphere.
Ford not only increased the frequency of the press conference (he held 41 total in a single term), he also began the custom of allowing more follow-up questions. A reporter would ask a question and before the answer, he would tell of his intention to ask a follow up. Another method was for the correspondent to remain standing during the president's answer to indicate he had more to add.
Ford decided to be more open and the press decided to become even more relentless in their questioning. The next president would have several confrontational press conferences and feel what Nixon had wrought.
Jimmy Carter stated at his first press conference that he would hold meetings with the press twice a month. He changed the format a bit by having assigned seats for the correspondents. Senior and regular reporters. Carter was familiar with the veterans and could anticipate their questions . Those farther back were usually left out of the conversation. Carter went back to pre-selected questions and many reporters started staying away and reported on what they saw in the televised broadcasts. The foreign press quit coming all together as they were seated even farther back. Carter, himself said that the press conferences could be confrontational and he wanted to stop that aspect of it.
Carter began calling fewer gatherings and after the Iranian hostage incident, he only held six press conferences during the entirety of 1980. Some feel his pulling back from the public eye showed a sign of weakness and it was this perception that led to his downfall and a little bit of Hollywood to take hold in Washington.
Ronald Reagan was a product of the studio days in Hollywood. Films were not only directed, they were produced, many times through committee. And the person who sells the story to the general public is the actor. Reagan figured out how to combine all of these factors into his press conferences. He took advantage of a Commission of Presidential Press Conferences report that had been written by the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The report recommended:
- The president should hold televised press conferences, with open access, once a month.
- The president should have weekly informal sessions, using whatever format he deems appropriate (i .e ., without television or radio equipment, if he chooses)
- At the regular sessions, have the reporters raise their hands rather than leap and shout.
- Questioners at the monthly press conferences could be chosen by lot
On January 29, 1981, Reagan held his first press conference and reporters raised their hands to be recognized. James Brady made sure the rest of the formal press conference participants were chosen by lottery. Reagan also put to fine use, his ease in front of a camera. He presented himself as strong and decisive and this played well with the press. He would toss off questions with an easy-going, "well, there you go again".
His easy-going manner may have helped him out later in his presidency when some members of the press began to take note of his Alzheimer's.
In her book "Reporting Live," former White House correspondent Lesley Stahl writes that she and other reporters suspected that Reagan was "sinking into senility" years before he left office. She writes that White House aides "covered up his condition" and journalists chose not to pursue it.
Stahl describes a particularly unsettling encounter with Reagan in the summer of 1986: her "final meeting" with the President, typically a chance to ask a few parting questions for a "going-away story." But White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes made her promise not to ask anything.
Although she'd covered Reagan for years, the glazed-eyed and fogged-up President "didn't seem to know who I was," wrote Stahl. For several moments as she talked to him in the Oval Office, a vacant Reagan barely seemed to realize anyone else was in the room. Meanwhile, Speakes was literally shouting instructions to the President, reminding him to give Stahl White House souvenirs.
Panicking at the thought of having to report on that night's news that "the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet," Stahl was relieved that Reagan soon reemerged into alertness, recognized her and chatted coherently with her husband, a screenwriter. "I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile."
Along with inheriting Reagan's office, George Herbert Walker Bush also inherited the Iran-Contra controversy. But he weathered through and held nearly two press conferences a month. His format for the press conference stayed close to the Reagan plan. The press, as they were during Reagan was pretty much asleep. Only former press corps member Dan Rather took the president to task in a heated one on one on CBS.
But if the press was "sleeping through the '80s" they awakened with fury during the Clinton administration. The rightwing was angry at losing to Bill Clinton and began an orchestrated plan to get back the White House. The several mostly baseless scandals they set into motion during Clinton's two terms gave the press a little chum and the sharks were constantly swimming. Though Clinton had an easy-going affability to him, he ended up holding almost half the number of Bush Sr. With the newfound Reaganistic right-wing talk show hosts leading the way, the Clinton administration had to stay on the defensive with the press.
But even with all the bad press, continual hounding of the right, and an impeachment behind him, Bill Clinton still left office with high approval. Even higher approval would come to the next president, but he would go south in a big way.
During most of his first year as President, George W. Bush was universally ridiculed for his consistent misuse of the English language. But after 9/11, the fear of terrorism put the country behind him. But Bush Two had advisors that led him to mistrust the press and by his first 34 months in office, he had only held a grand total of nine press conferences. In contrast, in the same period, Clinton held 33 and Bush Sr. had held 64.
The right wing was ruthless with reporters they felt hurt their agenda. The perceived perpetual thorn in the side of Republicans, Dan Rather, was pushed from his position at CBS after doing a story about Bush's time in the Air National Guard. While many experts believe Rather's story on it's own was true, the use of an unauthenticated document smothered the light of the investigation with shadows.
Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas knows all too well the wrath of George W. Bush. In an early March 2003 press conference, before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush deliberately failed to call on Helen, who by tradition had always been allowed to ask the first question. At the end of the press conference, instead of waiting for Helen to say the customary "Thank you, Mr. President," Bush ended by saying, "Thank you for your questions". In an act of retribution, Bush dismissed a decades old custom.
In the early parts of 2003, Thomas had gained Bush's ire by pressing press secretary Air Fleisher about war with Iraq.
Bush has effectively let the press know he will not tolerate any member of the press who criticizes his policies too harshly and it appears to have paid off. During the days of the Downing Street Documents, the mainstream press stayed away from a subject that flooded the Internet and foreign press.
Like other presidents before him, during a time of crisis, Bush pulls away from the press. The difference is, Bush w lrasheady pulled away from the press. His administration has been one of the most secretive in history. Like other presidents, Bush has used the press. The difference is, Bush has a full-fledged network (FOX) at his beck and call. An entire news organization ready to spin any and all news into the best possible light for George W. Bush.
We may be at a crossroad in presidential/press relations. The Bush administration is effectively carving away at the Bill of Rights. How long will it be before we have another Department of Information for the dissemination of news?
It is, however, an evil for which there is no remedy, our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost" - Thomas Jefferson