By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
It's not as if this president has been Mr. Openness. But by some important measures, George W. Bush is more accessible to the reporters who cover him than are some of the leading candidates to succeed him -- most notably Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The candidates' reluctance to engage in regular give-and-take with reporters on the campaign trail does not bode well for how they would behave if ensconced in the White House, swaddled in protective layers of presidential prerogative.
Through the end of September, the president had given 25 news conferences this year and answered questions from reporters in 19 less-extensive sessions, according to statistics compiled by Towson University political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar.
By contrast, Clinton and Obama have only occasionally held the kind of "press avail" that for other candidates, and in previous years, has been a common, often daily, occurrence.
"Senator Clinton has had one real press availability out on the campaign trail since she announced," my Post colleague Dan Balz, who is not given to cheap shots, pointedly noted on "Meet the Press" in September. "Obama is very much the same way."
Clinton stepped up the pace somewhat after Balz's remarks, to perhaps once a week. But when a New Hampshire reporter noted at a "press avail" last week that this was only her second in the state and asked if she'd pledge to do more, Clinton's answer was chilling.
"We will continue to run our campaign as we run our campaign, and we'll see how that unfolds over the next two months," she said.
Translation: I'll be talking to you only when my advisers decide I absolutely must.
Politicians, with the possible exception of John McCain, don't subject themselves to reporters because they enjoy it -- they do it because it's in their self-interest. Candidates eager, desperate even, for coverage are happy to make themselves available to reporters who have an interest in questioning them. Those in a stronger position don't want to risk veering off message.
This election isn't the first, and won't be the last, in which the inevitable tensions surface between the media's clamor for constant and instant access and the campaigns' desire to maintain control.
In 2004, for instance, reporters traveling with Democratic nominee John Kerry were so frustrated by mid-September that they hung a calendar on the campaign plane with the date Aug. 9 circled in dark ink -- and the words "Last Press Avail!!!" scrawled above it.
Some might think: Who cares whether cranky reporters get to ask their questions? I'd argue that this isn't just a matter of keeping a grumpy press corps occupied (or feeling important). Yes, candidates answer questions from real people -- actual voters -- and that is critical. But it is, as Bill Clinton would say, a false choice between the two types of questioning -- both are necessary, achievable and mutually reinforcing. What Hillary Clinton derides as a game of reporters playing "gotcha" can help illuminate candidates' thinking on issues and sharpen differences among them.
A voter with one shot at asking Clinton a question probably wouldn't have chosen to query her on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. But Clinton's answer -- or answers -- at last week's debate was telling.
There are several models of interaction between the press and presidential candidates; each plays an important role.
Sunday talk shows offer the best opportunity for what passes for in-depth questioning. On this scale, Obama and Clinton have been the most elusive of the Democrats; Clinton made grand rounds of all five shows when she unveiled her health-care plan in September but has otherwise been unavailable; Obama has appeared just twice all year on Sunday shows -- though he's set to be on "Meet the Press" this weekend.
Among Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, who's accessible on the campaign trail, has been the Garbo of Sunday talk, turning up just once -- on Fox, naturally.
Then there are one-on-one interviews, with both national and local media. Candidates grant, or don't allow, these interviews according to how it suits their purposes. Recently, for instance, Obama, trying to emphasize his get-tough message, has been acting as if he's got reporters on his friends and family plan. His campaign says he has an interview scheduled daily. Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said, "We're out there talking to the press." He noted a string of local radio interviews, TV "pull-asides" and the like.
Great, but that isn't a substitute for regular interchanges with the press corps as a whole, when candidates don't know what subjects will come whizzing at them and are subject to being quizzed on the issues of the day.
If the president can handle it, so can the candidates.