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On the Decline of Presidential Press Conferences

Related Link Lewis Gould: What's Wrong with the Presidency (And What Can Be Done to Fix It)

NB: This article was first published in 2001.

The most important image of this presidency is the one you cannot bring to mind. It is George W. Bush standing in front of the Washington press corps taking questions. In March advisors told reporters that the president intended to hold two press conferences a month. In the succeeding five months he held one. Since his inauguration he has held just four, one in February, March and May, and then one just last week in Crawford.

You might have thought that given the questions about the election he would have wanted to hold more rather than fewer press conferences than is average for presidents in order to bolster his credentials as the leader of a democracy. In fact, this son of a president and scion of a three-generation political dynasty—how’s that for democracy?--holds the record for appearing at the least number of press conferences since William Howard Taft, excepting only Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate and Ronald Reagan after Iran-contra.

Press conferences have indeed long since ceased playing an entirely constructive role. For at least a generation reporters have often seemed more eager to trip up a president than to find out what he thinks. And presidents long ago figured out how to use press conferences to advance their own agendas, frustrating reporters who wanted to find out what the administration position was on various issues.

Kennedy was the maestro. Anytime he wanted to get the Washington press chorus to sing his tune, he called a press conference. Peter Lisigor, the Chicago Daily News reporter, complained, “We were props in a show. We should have joined Actors Equity.” At one memorable press conference—his ninth in his first four months in office—JFK wittily remarked about his negative press coverage that he was “reading more and enjoying it less.”

But the press conferences did give the public the chance to see their leader up close. And while many of the comments presidents made were rehearsed, usually enough weren’t that the viewer could catch a glimpse of the human being behind the presidential seal. That was especially welcome in the Cold War when the president’s finger was often thought to be resting dangerously heavily on the nuclear button.

Television of course fundamentally changed the nature of the press conference, turning it into Lisigor’s derided box office performance. Before the cameras came, press conferences were more frequent and more dull. Imagine listening to Herbert Hoover drone on about corn prices in Iowa and you get the idea. But presidents insisted on holding them and the country was better off for it. Reporters did not have to guess what the president was thinking; they could ask him directly—and often. Every president from Calvin Coolidge to Harry Truman averaged five press conferences a month.

The year 1954 marked the turning point, thanks to Eastman Kodak, which perfected a new type of fast film that allowed press conferences to be televised without the use of high intensity lights. Within months Ike was holding televised press conferences every month. (To help prepare him, Robert Montgomery was hired to provide the general with stage directions.)

Ike never got very good at it. Press secretary Jim Hagerty at first even insisted on editing the film before allowing its distribution because Eisenhower made so many mistakes. But his ratings remained high and the pressure to release the film immediately became so intense that not even the general who had defeated Hitler could resist. Film at eleven!

Kennedy went one step further, allowing, at press secretary Pierre Salinger’s suggestion, that press conferences be carried live. Live from Washington, D.C., it’s the President of the United States!

None of the presidents afterwards ever came close to matching Kennedy’s brilliance and wit under the duress of a live press conference. Nixon sweated, Carter smiled too much and inappropriately, and Reagan fumbled and often looked confused. But nobody dared stop holding them on a regular basis as Bush has.

Bush at his Crawford press conference was unusually passionate, charming and relaxed. Crawford’s doing wonders for him. His aides probably regretted afterward not making more of the occasion in advance. So few editors expected anything interesting to take place that they dispatched only enough reporters to fill two rows, according to the New York Times.

The president may now be encouraged to hold more press conferences. He should, and he should whether he fares well or not. His aides insist he doesn’t live by the polls. He can prove it easily by standing before the people for a regular accounting.