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Discussion: The Presidential News Conference

January 28, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now a closer look at the presidential news conference as an institution, as a practice of governance. It comes from four people who have served presidents. Theodore Sorensen was special counsel and speech writer for John F. Kennedy; Ron Nessen, a former network correspondent, was press secretary for Gerald Ford; Michael Deaver was deputy chief of staff and assistant to Ronald Reagan; and Dee Dee Myers was President Clinton’s press secretary at the beginning of his first term.

Ted Sorensen, what did President Kennedy see as the purpose of a presidential news conference?

THEODORE SORENSEN, Former Kennedy Aide: He thought it was a superb opportunity to communicate directly with several audiences, the American people, bypassing the media, to the Congress, to the world at large, and even to the members of his own administration who by tuning in to periodic news conferences saw what the president’s perspective was.

JIM LEHRER: So he saw it as a good thing for him, right?

THEODORE SORENSEN: He thought it was a very good thing for him.

JIM LEHRER: Ron Nessen, how about Gerald Ford, what was his view of it?

RON NESSEN, Former Ford Press Secretary: Well, Gerald Ford came after Richard Nixon, and he thought there was a need to repair relations between the government and the media, and so he held news conferences on quite a regular basis. He’d come off the Hill where he took part every week in the Ev and Jerry show, and–

JIM LEHRER: That was Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford.

RON NESSEN: Right. Weekly press conference.


RON NESSEN: So he believed in regular press conferences. He had friends in the press. He felt comfortable.

JIM LEHRER: But he saw it as something for the press, right, rather than something else?

RON NESSEN: Among other things. He needed to patch up this relationship with the press. I think one of the factors of presidential news conferences that’s not much talked about is it’s also a way for the president to make sure that the people in his own government understand what his position is. Like any big organization, it’s hard to make sure everyone’s singing the song sheet, so one purpose for presidential news conferences and in the Ford administration was to let everybody else in the government and the White House know what the president was thinking on issues.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Deaver, what was the view of the news conference in the Reagan administration?

MICHAEL DEAVER, Former Reagan Aide: Of course, we had a president who was very comfortable with television, so the television conference was something that he enjoyed doing. And I think he always looked at that as his opportunity to leap over the heads of the press, as he would say.

JIM LEHRER: You mean, right before their very eyes.

MIKE DEAVER: Right before their very eyes. And that’s why he would always open the press conference with an opening statement, because he said, you know, that’s going to get on television; I’m going to be able to say what I want.

JIM LEHRER: Was he the first one to do that?

MIKE DEAVER: I don’t know, but he did it every time, and so he really used it, and I think in many ways the press resented it because it was using their time, but it was about a minute and a half at the beginning of every press conference.

JIM LEHRER: Dee Dee Myers, based on your experience, what’s President Clinton’s view of what he did today?

DEE DEE MYERS, Former Clinton Press Secretary: (Washington) Well, I think he did a couple of things today. The most obvious, he started out talking about something that will be in the budget that he’ll introduce to the Congress next week. You know presidents have done that for a long time, and Mike Deaver was just saying that President Reagan certainly did it. The other thing that I think the President wanted to do today was let a little bit of the pressure out of some of the campaign finance questions. There’s been a lot of revelations over the past few weeks. The President hasn’t faced the press during his pre-inaugural and inaugural period. And I think he really felt he needed to just go out there and take the questions and take some of the pressure out of that situation. And, as you saw, he got a lot of questions about campaign finance questions but he also got a lot of other things. He talked about welfare reform and education and tax credits for, you know, hiring people off welfare rolls and foreign policy. And he got to show his tremendous breadth. And I think that’s always one of the advantages that Bill Clinton sees in doing a press conference like this, or certainly his staff does, is that it shows once again just the breadth and the specific knowledge that this particular president has about many of the policies happening in his administration.

JIM LEHRER: Does he see it has something he has to do, or something that’s good for him to do?

DEE DEE MYERS: Well, I think both. I think presidents have to do press conferences in order to in some cases–you know, every press conference has a different purpose. President Clinton doesn’t do them as often as say President Bush, who really did a weekly press conference, but you have to do them because it’s in your interest. So I don’t know, nobody forces you to do them, but it keeps–certainly maintains a healthier relationship with the press corps, which is always useful. And it communicates a lot of useful information if you’ve–watching the President over the last few days, what he’s doing is trickling out some of the proposals that are going to be in his budget, things that he knows may not get as much attention during the State of the Union. Next week we may get buried by the questions about numbers and, you know, CBO projections, and what not. So this is a good opportunity again for him to answer the press’s questions, be accountable to them, which is important. We all know that that two-way relationship is important here in Washington, and also they’d make a little news about a couple of things that he wanted to make news about.

JIM LEHRER: Ted Sorensen, it’s often said that another result of a good presidential news conference is the preparation that the president goes through to go out there. In the process he is forced to make some decisions on some things because people like you and Nessen and Dee Dee Myers and Mike Deaver are standing around saying, well, Mr. President, you might be asked about this, so what is our position on such and such and such and such, is that–does that–did that happen in the Kennedy administration?

THEODORE SORENSEN: Absolutely. It was preparing for a final exam every two weeks. The night before the president received a notebook with reports from every cabinet and agency head on possible questions and issues that might come up. And woe to anyone who held something back and gave the president a surprise. At breakfast he met with a group of us who fired at him every possible question that could come up, and some of them couldn’t come up just to make sure he was ready, and those where he did not feel he was ready, he requested further information. And then just before he went over to the press conference he had a last-minute update on breaking news.

JIM LEHRER: And did he, in fact, make a decision that might–he might have otherwise made two weeks later, or the next day, made it early in order to have it clean for the news conference?

THEODORE SORENSEN: I would say that was relatively rare, but it happened on occasion. But, more importantly, it was a means of making certain that he was informed on everything going on in government.

JIM LEHRER: Same experience for Gerald Ford?

RON NESSEN: Well, I think every president prepares for the news conference differently, Jim. We started off doing the same thing that Ted was talking about, which was have sort of a make-believe news conference with the president, fire questions at him that were anticipated and let him try out some answers. He was more comfortable working from paper. So we ended up doing what Ted was talking about, which was notebooks containing anticipated questions and the factual material from which he could craft his answers. I think one of the most interesting experiences I had and something I learned that was interesting was that in those make-believe or preparatory news conferences with the staff we always asked tougher questions than the reporters did at the actual news conferences.

JIM LEHRER: And what do you think–why do you think that is?

RON NESSEN: I think because there’s been a change in news conferences since I was involved in covering the White House. And my own background is from the UPI, so I believe in, you know–

JIM LEHRER: You were with NBC News.

RON NESSEN: With NBC–asking factual questions to get factual answers, to write stories. I think so many of the questions now are accusatory or argumentative. They start off: Isn’t it true that, or don’t you realize that, and when a president gets a question like that–and there were a lot of them today–you have to spin as your answer. You have to go into sort of spin mode and talk about philosophy, rather than giving factual answers.

JIM LEHRER: I’m really not a crook. I really don’t do it–you know, you have to start that way, you mean?

RON NESSEN: Exactly.

DEE DEE MYERS: But you also–I think–

JIM LEHRER: Yes, Dee Dee. Yeah.

DEE DEE MYERS: The value sometimes of doing the press conferences because certainly we did them when I was in the Clinton White House, and I know that they continue, is that because the questions are sometimes accusatory or they’re kind of loaded, sometimes they can make the president mad. And one of the things this does is give the president a chance to hear the meanest, nastiest versions of a question that he might get, and, therefore, he is prepared for it, so he doesn’t respond emotionally because I think we’ve all seen our presidents get into trouble by having an emotional response to a question when a more controlled, factual answer serves them better.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Deaver, how did Ronald Reagan get ready for a news conference?

MICHAEL DEAVER: President Reagan actually did a mock press conference usually the day before–the day of the conference, where he would stand up at a podium and field questions. I think one of the real problems that I remember about preparing for a press conference was the fact that you could put too much information into the computer. You get a lot of people at these–staff people at these press conferences who want to cover their own tail. They want to be sure the president doesn’t make a mistake and they get blamed for it, so they feed all of this information. It goes into a computer, and pretty soon you’ve got a problem, because one of the things you need for television is short, crisp answers. And you can get too much preparation for a press conference very easily.

JIM LEHRER: Mike, what about–what about the question of whether or not a news conference is a legitimate test of a president, in other words, whether he does well or does poorly, hey, is that relevant?

MICHAEL DEAVER: I think television is so important to us anymore, and that we all become experts on television, and we believe, I think, that the camera doesn’t lie; that we’re able to see body language; we’ll be able to see whether the president flinches at a question, whether there’s sweat on the brow. So all of those things are important to us, and yes, one of the ways we judge a leader is how well they can stand up to that, how well he can stand up to antagonism and pressure. We don’t have the parliamentary system, where the prime minister has to stand every, every day or once a week before the parliament and take it. And so the press conference kind of becomes that way as we judge the president.

JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding in agreement, Ron Nessen?

RON NESSEN: Well, I think 90 percent or 80 percent, whatever the number is, of the American people get their news from television. They learn what’s going on mostly from television. And if you can’t communicate well on television, whatever other qualities you may have, you’re probably not going to make a good leader. And I think often, though, presidents use these news conferences, well, not always use these news conferences to get their own points across, and sometime the antagonism of the press is helpful to them, especially these days, when people don’t like the press very much. And, you know, Dee Dee was talking about the need to have press conferences frequently to relieve the pressure, and the pressure builds up and reporters haven’t had a chance for months to talk to a president. And there are just all these events that have transpired, and they need to ask the president about it. Then it becomes sort of a baying pack. And I know, some presidents have just stood there and listened to the baying for a while because it sends a terrible image of reporters.

JIM LEHRER: Ted Sorensen, was it the real John F. Kennedy that we saw in the news conferences? I mean, is it a legitimate test and showing of a real person, a real president?

THEODORE SORENSEN: It may not be a test of a president’s wisdom or his courage or his soundness, but it certainly is a test of his mental and verbal agility and it’s a revelation of his personality. And, yes, with humor and with keen, incisive answers, we saw the real John Kennedy at his press conferences.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think the body language and just seeing him perform was almost as important as the answers that he gave?

THEODORE SORENSEN: I think it was important politically. I don’t say it was all that important in terms of governance.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Dee Dee Myers, that President Clinton, the way he handles the question is–is it as important as the answers he gives?

DEE DEE MYERS: I think both are clearly important. You know, President Clinton clearly enjoys on most occasions the give-and-take with the press, and as the press conference goes on, he’ll lean into the podium. You can see him relax, his hands hanging over the front of it. And today you could see his press secretary, Mike McCurry, trying to cut it off a couple of times. I remember what that felt like, and no, he kept waving him off. He wanted to keep talking. And I think all of those things for Bill Clinton today suggested he was on top of the material; he was open; he was willing to answer the hard questions; and so both the substance and the style of that press conference, I think, helped him. There was no huge newsmaker; there were no tremendous new revelations. I think you do get a window into the president. John Kennedy displayed a tremendous amount of humor at his press conference. It was clear he was a witty guy, good sense of humor. You know, each president sort of displays personality traits that are, in effect, very on target, and the American people, I think, get a chance to see that.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Dee Dee Myers, gentlemen, thank you all very much.