It’s time for this writer to own up to being a “presidential news conference groupie.” You see, for most of my life, I’ve been fascinated with the specter of a live, solo Q & A session between a president and a crowd of reporters known as the Washington press corps. I started to devour televised press conferences as a kid, even reading newspaper transcripts of them (while my brothers hogged the sports pages) after seeing them on TV.
The one last held by President Trump, on which I’ll comment in a moment, caused me to reflect on these news events, their history, and how I saw various presidents fare in this true gamble of a venue.
Back in 1913, Woodrow Wilson held the first solo press conference with reporters. From him all the way to Harry Truman, however, the format was a world of difference from today. Back then, the president and the reporters would actually work together on the final responses before release to the public. Most interestingly, they were “off the record,” and whatever content that reached the public first had to meet with the president’s approval. Calvin Coolidge held them this way 521 times during the radio days of the 1920s.
By the ’50s, Eisenhower broke this mold, but only somewhat. Though videotaped, only certain clips were kept for later broadcast. The unwritten rule continued, that what ended up on TV and other news media first had to pass muster with the president and his staff. In that manner, Ike held an average of 24 of them each year.
As an 8-year-old, I remember watching these, not fully grasping all the details, but absorbed with the revered father-figure of Eisenhower (his WWII hero’s image still quite intact), taking questions with such authority. Clearly he was held in awe by a dutiful press corps – a deep respect that took quite a hit near the end of Eisenhower’s tenure with the U-2 spy plane incident. The press — and the country — realized what was then unthinkable: we were lied to by our government – that it was no weather plane over their country that the Soviets had shot down.
And then there was John F. Kennedy. From my humble perspective, no one before or since was better suited for a televised press conference. By his very persona, he projected with ease a telegenic image of a leader in command of the facts who deftly explained his reply to any random question. For the first time, the presidential press conference was broadcast live and unrehearsed during afternoons. I marveled at his unique combination of a strong leadership style with a sense of humor. But whatever his formula, he was masterful. I would actually delay delivering my paper route after school when his news conferences occurred. They were something to behold.
Eschewing the traditional, cramped room in the White House, open to a small, select group of journalists, Kennedy moved his sessions to a larger space, able to accommodate a huge crowd of reporters and cameras. So in another example in his short life of his often demonstrated personal courage, he held them in the State Department auditorium, often facing more than 200 news people from the world over. In his brief thousand days in office, he and the press corps seemed to share a level of mutual respect that I have not seen since, either in press conferences or anywhere else in society, for that matter.
After Kennedy, all seemed to go downhill. Lyndon Johnson did poorly almost all the time, struggling to be liked, but lacking the skill before large groups that was the opposite of his legendary, one-on-one gift of persuasion. Then came Richard Nixon, who was the first to hold his news conferences at night during prime-time in the White House East Room. One could see he was one of the better minds to serve as president, yet his demeanor conveyed strain and anxiety, with a growing, palpable hostility between him and the press corps. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did little to make their press conferences interesting, a disappointing mix of sincerity and ineffectiveness.
Enter Ronald Reagan, whose innate, sunny demeanor, honed by years of performances under the klieg lights, never failed him, even as he fumbled many questions. His humor and one-liners defused many an assault from reporters during these sessions. And he usually would get some basic message across, often beyond the reporters and out to the American people. Indeed, he became known to many as the “Great Communicator,” owing in great measure to his press conference record.
Clinton and the two Bushes held their own in their “pressers,” but their efforts were regularly uninspiring. For me they were usually a chore to watch, not the kind of events to which one would look forward. Barack Obama’s offered little reprieve, with a typical response to a press conference question often taking up to 15 professorial minutes. It didn’t help how the journalists usually threw him one softball question after another, all but shedding their role of auditing the powerful.
How now the pendulum has swung with the press conferences of Donald Trump! No one has broken the mold for this news institution more than he. So far, they are set against a background where both the news media and politicians suffer an abysmally poor, public image. Whatever the explanation, the most recent Trump presser, covered live on Feb. 16, all by itself has transformed this venue into a bewildering mix of wind and wisdom.
Trump’s press conferences do fulfill the people’s expectation that their leaders will answer questions. He answers all, and a great many get to be asked compared to his predecessors. But no one till now has so openly and irritably refused questions from reporters who displease him. The point-counterpoint of the past has evolved into punch-counterpunch. Gone is the venue where reporters had the role of surrogates for the public. Instead, we have arrived at an age of press conferences steeped in anger and spectacle, where at least thus far, they are suited less for the East Room and more for Madison Square Garden.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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