Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a master at manipulating the press, which in turn served to deceive the American people about his abominable New Deal and the truth behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. Beyond his famous fireside chats, FDR held nearly one thousand press conferences during his time in the White House.
None of FDR's successors matched that mind-boggling total, but they employed the press conference to varying degrees of success. After World War II, the number of reporters anxious to hang on the president's every word increased dramatically from the 100 or so that would congregate around FDR's desk. Accordingly, Harry Truman was forced to stand before reporters, resulting in the loss of intimacy that marked the Roosevelt era.
Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to make mistakes and thus took to taping his press conferences for later broadcast. The silver-tongued John F. Kennedy wasn't concerned about such blunders and initiated the live televised news conference. Presidents Johnson and Nixon had plenty to hide and hence loathed answering questions from what they saw as an adversarial Beltway press corps.
The presidential press conference has become less and less frequent since FDR's reign. Jimmy Carter conducted 59, while Ronald Reagan presided over just 44, very few of them after the Iran-Contra scandal broke. Bill Clinton was the darling of the national media and considered the press conference an ideal forum to display his charms. But like Reagan, Clinton did all he could to avoid reporters following the advent of All Monica All the Time. That strategy backfired, however, when members of the press would pepper him with questions during photo ops.
Our current president, George W. Bush, avoids formal press conferences like Ellen DeGeneres avoids men, and it's no wonder why. Without the guiding hand of the teleprompter to feed his speechwriters' words into his mouth, he's as lost as Rush Limbaugh at a NOW convention. And so, understandably perhaps, Bush stages a press conference about as often as the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.
I was thinking about this the other night (while also having a heated debate with myself about the wisdom of using three metaphors in a single paragraph) as somnolence overcame me. I remember the dream in almost crystalline detail . . .
u201C. . . And so I urge everyone within the sound of my drawl to contact your representatives and senators and ask them to vote u201Cyesu201D on this important bill.
u201COK, I guess I can take a few questions, but let's make it quick. I have a meeting with Rumsfeld and Cheney to decide what we're going to do about that Saddam problem that my old man botched. Yes, over here. Go ahead.u201D
Mona Lackey, ABC News: President Bush, can you tell us why it was so vital to impose a 30% tariff on imported steel?
Bush: Steel is a very important metal, if not one of top three metals in the world today. And foreign steel is cheap, but not as good as ours, because we use our steel to fight the war on terrorism. Our brave men and women protecting our freedom way over there in Afghanistan deserve the best, most expensive steel we can give them.
Follow-up: What do you say to those crazy critics who outrageously claim that you are bailing out one bloated, inefficient industry at the expense of thousands of other industries and ultimately all consumers?
Bush: Steel is a big deal in Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvanis have to go to the polls in 2004 just like everybody else.
Kevin Kluliss, Collectivist News Network: Speaking of going to the polls, in your 2000 campaign, you were not in favor of campaign finance reform, yet you signed it into law. What changed your mind?
Bush: Well, first I had to get elected, and that soft money really came in handy. You wouldn't want to depend on Al Gore to win the war on terror, would you? But now that my approval rating is over 80% and it looks like I'll be around to lead the war on terrorism until 2008, the timing is right for this crucial legislation.
Flunky McGuire, New York Post: You have proposed a $48 billion dollar increase in defense spending, the largest since the Reagan administration.
Bush: Ronald Reagan was a great president, and not just because he made Dad Vice President. And that made it easy for him to beat Miguel Dukakis and be the president. Of course, if Dad was never president, I'd probably still be in Texas numbing my nostrils and drinking Schnapps every night. But I digest. Reagan fought and defeated the Evil Empire, and now I fight the Evil Empire of Terrorism. And I will win, even if it takes forever. Or even longer.
Zack Hawk, War Street Journal: The Pentagon has proposed the use of nuclear weapons in seven countries. Can you explain to the sheeple, er, the American people, why this is such a wonderful idea?
Bush: Well, we're actually going to reduce the number of nuclear weapons we use, which are just for deterrence.
Follow-up: But the policy states that you might use nuclear weapons against countries like Libya or Syria.
Bush: We want to make it very clear to all nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies. Only we are allowed to threaten other nations with nuclear annihilation. As the commander-of-chief, that's my right, and it's the right thing to do.
Patsy Mann, Washington Post: Congress has asked Tom Ridge to testify about Homeland Security. Why won't he do that?
Bush: Because I told him not to. When he was governor of Michigan he could do whatever he wanted. But now he's on my staff, so he doesn't blow his nose without my permission. That's the prerogative of the executive branch. As for communicating with Congress, I just had breakfast with Tom Daschle, and let me tell you, that man can put away the eggs!
John Dupe, New York Times: Mr. President, in your speeches now you rarely talk about Osama bin Laden. Why is that?
Pawn Miller, CBS News: Do you officially recognize the Zimbabwe elections?
Bush: We do not recognize the outcome of the election because we think it's flawed. And we are talking with our friends to figure out how to deal with this flawed election. If that doesn't work, I have five very good friends on the Supreme Court that tend to support me on issues like this.
Todie Brown, FOXNEWS: Recently you announced an ambitious plan to make it easier for the government to crack down on those evil corporations, but your SEC chief says he'll need a lot more money than you proposed.
Bush: Well, I'm not sure what I was thinking last year when I said the government could get by with only a 4% budget increase. These programs cost a lot of money. And it's even more expensive when we mess up I mean, when we meet new challenges that require additional funding.
Fawn Evans, NBCNews: Mr. President, I would be remiss if I didn't provide you with an opportunity to defend Israel with all that's going on in the Middle East right now. What can you tell us?
Bush: When a country is attacked by terrorists, they have the right to defend themselves. And that's what Israel is doing. And Israel is our friend. They are a democracy and most of their people are not Arabs, or even Muslims. Yes Sir Arafat needs to end the cycle of violence. As long as Ariel Sharon is fighting terrorism, he will remain My Sharon-a, as the Knick Knack once sang. That's a catchy tune, isn't it? I can't get it out of my head: M-M-M-M-My Sharon-a. M-M-M-M-My Sharon-a. Laura still plays that record on an old turntable she brought up from Texas.
Eric Yesmann, Los Angeles Times: We've been hearing that your administration is making plans for a regime change in Iraq. Why is it so important to remove Saddam Hussein from power?
Bush: We have gathered lots of evidence that Saddam is amassing weapons of mass destruction. Now that's classified, so I'm not privied to share that with you. But we're talking about a man who gives gas to his own people. A man who would not hesitate to use destructive weapons against innocent people. So if you don't want Saddam Hussein to be your next president, then we need to act decisively.
Wanda Witless, Chicago Tribune: Last month, Secretary Rumsfeld killed the planned Office of Strategic Influence, which would have planted false news stories in the foreign press. What are your thoughts?
Bush: That was much ado about something. It is not the policy of my administration to lie, cheat or steal (he almost imperceptibly winks).
u201CListen, I want to thank you very much. I've enjoyed this press conference. I hope you have as well. Maybe I'll have another one after I'm reelected.u201D
April 15, 2002