Lack of Reagan Press Sessions Stirs Concerns

Times Washington Bureau Chief

The televised White House press conference, a fixture of the presidency for 27 years and a major forum for the public to judge presidential performance, has been virtually abandoned by President Reagan.

Reagan has limited his formal White House press conferences to one so far in 1987 and only two since the Iran- contra scandal surfaced almost a year ago.

Devising Alternatives

Meanwhile, his aides have been devising alternative means for the President to communicate with the public, such as one-on-one interviews with favored commentators and news organizations, and are considering experimenting with press conferences in which live television coverage would be barred.

Reagan’s withdrawal from the live, televised forums reflects a common view in the White House that the fewer times he handles such free-form questioning from the press, the better off he will be.


His past press conferences have been marred by repeated mistakes and contradictions that have embarrassed him and have created confusion on crucial policy issues.

“The fact is he won’t hold another formal press conference as long as he can get by without holding one,” said a former Reagan aide who retains close ties to the White House. “He doesn’t like to do them, and he knows it’s generally recognized that he hasn’t performed well when he has done them.”

Though shunning this format may have political benefits for Reagan, some public policy experts are concerned that the strategy is depriving people of a vital method for obtaining information on key issues and for seeing how the President performs under pressure.

“The presidential news conference is a critically important means of communication between the President and the American people,” said Marvin Kalb, a Harvard University professor and former television newsman, in a letter to media and government officials announcing a seminar this month on the subject. “And yet it seems to be in a state of acute disrepair. . . . There is no easy fix in sight.”

Marlin Fitzwater, the President’s chief press spokesman, denies that Reagan has entirely abandoned the televised press conference, and said it is “possible” the President will hold one this month.

But such forums “aren’t the be-all, end-all way” for the President to communicate, he insisted.


Fitzwater laughed when a reporter pointed out that Reagan has held fewer White House press conferences than any other modern President including Richard M. Nixon, who shunned the press for extended periods during the Vietnam and Watergate days.

“My response to that,” Fitzwater said, “is that some of the presidents shouldn’t have held so many press conferences.”

Eisenhower Limited Tapes

He gave few details on the no-live-television press conferences the White House is considering holding. During the Eisenhower Administration, the White House limited what taped segments television could later broadcast.

The live-television press conferences Reagan has held have repeatedly caused consternation for the President’s advisers, with misstatements on such issues as arms control and monetary policy requiring hurried clarifications or corrections.

One of Reagan’s worst slips came Nov. 19, when he insisted the United States had “nothing to do with other countries or shipment of arms” to Iran. Less than an hour later the White House issued an extraordinary “clarification” that a third country, later identified as Israel, had indeed worked in concert with the United States in shipping arms to Iran.

At the same press conference, the President also erred on key points of agreements on nuclear arms reductions tentatively reached with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit the preceding month.


And at Reagan’s last meeting with the White House press corps--on June 11 at the end of a seven-nation economic summit in Venice--he said “there could still be a lowering of the value” of the U.S. dollar, a remark that contradicted Administration policy, sparked a drop by the dollar on international currency markets and sent aides scurrying around with corrections to repair the damage.

Such problems convinced Reagan that he should either abandon or drastically limit televised news conferences, according to White House sources, even though he once promised he would conduct them regularly.

At a press conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, 1980, immediately after his election to his first term, he told reporters that as President he would do his best to hold press conferences on “a fairly regular and consistent basis.”

At least since 1913 and the beginning of the Woodrow Wilson Administration, the presidential press conference has been used by presidents to educate the American public about their policies.

Presidents have found that press conferences offer them an opportunity to show that their actions and policies can meet the test of hard, unrestricted questioning. And they give the public a chance to judge not only a President’s programs but also his mental and physical abilities to do his job.

Reagan’s pullback from press conferences comes at a time of continuing political fallout from the Iran-contra scandal, the Persian Gulf crisis, the arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets, the peace negotiations in Central America, and the Administration’s bitter battle to win Senate confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.


Moreover, with rare exceptions, Reagan also has not been directly available to the White House press in any other forum since the Iran-contra scandal surfaced.

Though Reagan’s avoidance of live press forums is more pronounced than any of his predecessors’, that strategy is not unusual for a President under fire.

Jimmy Carter shunned press conferences during the Iranian hostage crisis, as Nixon did during both the Vietnam conflict and Watergate, and Lyndon B. Johnson did during Vietnam.

“Most presidents instinctively shrink into themselves when the going gets tough,” says George E. Reedy, dean of the Marquette University College of Journalism who served as President Johnson’s press secretary. “They have all the instincts of an armadillo and roll up into a ball and get even more isolated from reality than they usually are.”

Overall, Johnson held press conferences at the rate of twice a month, but once during 1965 and 1966 he went almost a year without meeting with the press.

“He really clammed up and got as far away from the press as he could,” said Reedy. “But it was a great mistake. The press conference is the one thing a President has where he really gets a concept of how people feel. Everything else that comes into the White House is tailored to please him or anger him as much as possible.”


Jody Powell, a Washington public relations executive who served as Carter’s press secretary, said Carter also found press conferences valuable in helping him “stay in touch with what’s going on in his own government” because in preparing for one, the President requires agencies to furnish information on issues he might be asked about.

Although Nixon held relatively few press conferences, he considered them valuable when he was in control and the facts were in his favor, according to Ronald Ziegler, a Washington trade association executive who served as his press secretary.

“But he was under tremendous strain and tension when confronted by the press during Watergate and his attempt to explain at press conferences failed because the facts were against him,” said Zeigler. “And that’s why Reagan didn’t come out well in his press conference on the Iran-contras affair--the facts were against him.”

But even before the Iran-contra scandal broke, Reagan held fewer press conferences for his time in office than any modern President. In the 11 months since the scandal broke, he has held only one formal White House press conference--last March 19.

During the 81 months of his presidency, Reagan has held only 40 formal White House press conferences. Except for Nixon, who held 37 press conferences in 66 months in office, other presidents during the past 25 years have held one or two a month.

Carter held 59 in 48 months; Gerald R. Ford, 39 in 29 months; Johnson, 126 in 62 months; and John F. Kennedy, 65 in 34 months.


Reagan’s steady withdrawal from public discourse--except for speeches on television or radio, addresses to carefully selected audiences or rare interviews with supportive journalists--comes as a dramatic escalation of the trend away from frequent and regular contacts between the President and the press.

It has caused special concern among news media organizations because it comes against a backdrop of evidence of increasing secrecy in government.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which monitors the flow of government information, the Reagan Administration and its legislative supporters have taken more than 140 different actions aimed at restricting public and media access to government information and intruding on editorial freedom. These range from the Grenada invasion news blackout to an assortment of legislative proposals and court petitions aimed at restricting the Freedom of Information Act.

Fitzwater, like his predecessor, Larry Speakes, frowns on the televised press conference and says the White House view is that while there may be “some value” in holding press conferences, it is “a lot of baloney” to emphasize them while overlooking other means of presidential communications.

In recent weeks, the White House has arranged a series of interviews by journalists or organizations generally regarded as supportive of the President, such as the Washington Times, U. S. News and World Report, Fred Barnes of the New Republic and Hugh Sidey of Time magazine.

Speakes, commenting last year before he left the White House to accept a job on Wall Street, declared that the televised press conference “just does not satisfy the presidency, the press, or the public” and suggested it had outlived its usefulness.


‘So Much Happening’

Although presidents generally have timed White House press conferences to get their messages across during periods when important public issues are being debated, Fitzwater says a major reason Reagan has not held one since March 19 is that there has been “so much happening.”

“We made a decision not to do it during the Iran-contras hearings and then we’ve had so much happening--the Persian Gulf, the Bork nomination and we’re in the middle of the arms control process--that there’s been no time to devote to it,” he said.

Television has dramatically altered presidential press conferences since the decision by President Kennedy to permit live coverage. Presidents became more reluctant to speak out before a live audience for fear of making a damaging slip of the tongue or of appearing ill-informed.

The presidential press conference was used most freely during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. With scores of reporters gathered around his desk he would respond spontaneously in question-and-answer periods and at times would go off-the-record or provide background information to reporters.

The White House press operated under much stricter ground rules then and was permitted to quote the President directly only upon his approval.

The policy of regular and frequent press conferences continued under Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who held press conferences at least once a week.


Eisenhower also brought a new openness to the press conference by permitting reporters to quote him directly and allowing radio taping and television taping of the proceedings for later broadcast.

But it was Kennedy’s decision approving live television coverage that ushered in a new era of more direct communication with the people, and with it more White House apprehension about regular meetings with the press.

A Commission on Presidential Press Conferences, established by the University of Virginia to study the evolution of press conferences and recommend reforms, reported in 1981 that the institution was in “a state of distressing disrepair.”

The attitude of the press toward the White House had evolved from sharply inquisitive to “downright antagonistic” during what many in the press perceived as President Johnson’s deceptions about the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s evasions and lies about Watergate. And that atmosphere carried over into the Ford and Carter administrations.

The commission, which was headed by Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton and Ray Sherer, then an RCA vice president and formerly an NBC White House correspondent, declared the press shared in the blame for “the breakdown in communications” and accused some reporters of demonstrating “more of an instinct for the jugular than for journalism.”

But the commission, declaring that maintaining frequency was the key to any successful policy of press conferences, made only two recommendations: The President should hold monthly televised press conferences open to all reporters and weekly informal meetings with reporters in a setting of his choice, with or without television broadcast. Reagan has followed neither recommendation.