Like others who ply the newspaper trade here in Washington, I have attended many presidential press conferences, and I am always struck by the same thought when the president steps up to the podium: how alone he seems to be.
Because presidents are nearly always surrounded by staff, security and often other politicians, the essential aloneness of the president can be missed. At press conferences, a president is both alone and on his own. No assistant can whisper in his ear or produce a useful statistic. Unlike the British prime minister who sits among members of his cabinet—and has advance notice of the questions–during Question Time, when a president hears a question he must answer it with the full knowledge that his words are circling the globe, and that later he must defend them.
A presidential press conference is intolerant of slips of the tongue, twisted history or evasion. You might say a press conference is an enhanced interrogation technique.
So it is strange, and unfortunate, that President Barack Obama and his media team leave the impression that his press conferences are rigged.
The appearance of “rigging” came in with George W. Bush and, along with some other aspects of the Bush press operation, has survived. I am referring to the practice of preselecting who will be called upon to ask questions. This gives the impression that the either the reporters in question know they are going to be called upon or, worse, that the president has advance knowledge of the questions themselves.
Until Bush, presidential press conferences were free-for-alls with dozens of correspondents shouting, “Mr. President.” Sure it was untidy, but it was fair and transparent. One imagines that the prescreening now takes place between the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and Obama. Hence the favoring of television networks, The New York Times, and one black and one Hispanic correspondent, as was witnessed last week. This kind of engineering wrings spontaneity out of the proceedings and causes more and more reporters to stay home and watch the travesty on television.
This trend was obvious in the drop-off in attendance from Obama’s first and second prime-time press conferences to his third. If there is no chance that you will get to ask a question, what is the point in attending?
Many White House regulars, some of whom have covered the White House for decades, are expressing dissatisfaction with Gibbs’s fascination with a handful of reporters–most newly arrived on the beat, like Gibbs himself.
It is not reasonable to expect the president to be familiar with inner workings of the White House press corps. But it is upsetting that Gibbs has clearly not sought to learn from Bill Clinton’s last two press secretaries, Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, both of whom were masterful in difficult circumstance. Or, in the spirit of bipartisanship, he might put in a call to Dana Perino, one of the stars of the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency and his last press secretary.
One of the questions Gibbs might usefully ask of past press honchos is how they kept things running on time. Seldom were briefings late or rescheduled during the day, the way they are now. Clinton was a terrible timekeeper, but the press operation was sensitive to the time demands on correspondents. Not so Gibbs. When it comes to tardiness, the press operation at the Obama White House is in a class by itself.
Back to last week in the East Room of the White House. As is the way in these days of tribal politics, the Washington commentariat saw what it wanted to see in Obama’s performance. One conservative friend, John Gizzi of Human Events, thought Obama was in campaign mode. Some fit the press conference to their belief that the president is hell-bent on taking the country down the French socialist road, and that he will not rest until the tricolore flies over the White House and American schoolchildren sing the “Marseillaise.” Others, amazingly, found proof that Obama would be only a one-term president.
I think I can speculate with the best of them and I saw only a tired, slightly impatient but impressively articulate man alone with big troubles.
Obama is trying to fix everything at once. The only person who really pulled that off militarily and domestically was Napoleon Bonaparte. It was Napoleon who gave us the idea that a new leader’s effectiveness should be assessed in 100-day increments–except it was 111days for Napoleon, but the Paris newspapers shortened it to 100 days. And the 100-day timeline was not at the beginning of Napoleon’s reign, but at the end–the time between his escape from Elba and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.