PRESIDENT BUSH hasn't taken questions from White House reporters in nearly a month. He's had just 15 solo news conferences during his presidency, the last a 13-minute session at his Texas ranch. When he does answer questions at town hall-type campaign rallies, they're from pre-screened supporters. As Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar notes in a forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Mr. Bush opened a news conference with Afghan president Hamid Karzai by saying, "We'll answer questions in the tradition of democratic societies." Under the Bush presidency, that tradition hasn't flourished.
One piece of good news, as reported by The Post's Mike Allen and Dan Balz today, is that the Bush campaign has tentatively agreed to a series of three debates with Democratic opponent John F. Kerry along the lines of the proposal by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The deal is for three 90-minute debates, the first on foreign policy, the second a town hall forum with undecided voters and the third on domestic issues. If this agreement holds, Mr. Bush will have done the right thing -- but it doesn't reflect well on him that the campaign's original demand was to limit the encounters to two debates and eliminate the session with voters.
Face-to-face meetings of the two candidates for a total of 4 1/2 hours also won't compensate for their lack of availability elsewhere. According to Ms. Kumar, Mr. Bush has held 82 press conferences during his term, including joint sessions with foreign leaders in which half the questions are from foreign reporters and answers from the foreign leaders eat up much of the time. His father, by contrast, had a total of 142 press conferences, 83 of them solo.
White House officials like to point out that Mr. Bush favors short question-and-answer sessions over formal East Room affairs. Even if those were adequate substitutes, however, Ms. Kumar's analysis shows that both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton clamped down far less than this president when they were running for reelection. According to her numbers, between Jan. 1 and Aug. 27 of the election year, the first President Bush engaged in short Q&A's with reporters 56 times, Mr. Clinton 85 times and the incumbent president just 33 times.
Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, seems content to follow Mr. Bush's model on the campaign trail. As The Post's Paul Farhi reported, the Democratic nominee hasn't had a press "avail" to answer reporters' questions in more than a month. In the two weeks leading to his party's convention, Mr. Kerry spoke to reporters twice, for a grand total of six questions. Yes, Mr. Kerry submits to individual interviews, particularly with local media in battleground states. That's fine, but it's not a substitute for frequent give-and-take with a group. Mr. Kerry has promised that, if elected, he would hold at least one press conference a month. "I want America to know what I'm doing. I want you to know what I'm fighting for. I want you to ask me questions," he told reporters.
Lofty rhetoric from both candidates. Now, how about a question.