Not everyone in Washington has run out of gas just because the weather is hot. My friends and colleagues at the National Press Foundation have been at work trying to revive the presidential news conference, a project of importance not just to journalists but to citizens of this country.
The foundation -- a nonprofit group that supports efforts to improve the quality of journalism -- has taken on the responsibility of canvassing all the presidential candidates' views of the news conference.
The project, spearheaded by foundation president David Yount, is prompted by concern that the news conference is in danger of expiring. The last two-term president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had 193 news conferences, despite time lost to several illnesses in his eight years. By contrast, Ronald Reagan is going into the final 17 months of his tenure having met the press just 41 times.
Where Eisenhower answered questions twice a month, Reagan's average is barely once every two months. And this past year it's become a quarterly opportunity for the people covering him to inquire what he thinks of the public-policy questions of the day.
The president pays a price for this isolation, as the Iran-contra affair demonstrates. Facing frequent news conferences forces a president to be sure he knows what is happening around him. Eisenhower commented that ''it does a lot of things for me personally,'' starting with the fact that ''at least once a week I have to take a half-hour to review in my own mind what has happened . . . so that I don't make errors just through complete inadvertence.. . .'' Would that Reagan had had such promptings to inquire of his aides.
For the public, the great thing about news conferences is that they bring presidents into the political dialogue, by requiring them to answer the arguments and evidence introduced by critics of their policies. They guarantee that the American people hear from the man they elected -- and not merely from some hired spokesman. They make it clear where the buck stops -- in the Oval Office and not down the hall.
We have learned often enough from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and now Reagan -- the three modern presidents who became least accessible to the press -- the terrible costs of the cult of secrecy in the White House. A candidate's attitude toward news conferences is the best advance measure of his capacity to fight off that neurotic tendency to lock the gates of the White House, pull down the shades and conduct policy in secret.
The responses so far look hopeful. Nine candidates have answered the foundation's questions. All nine said they would hold White House news conferences on a ''regular'' schedule; five of the nine said they would be more frequent than Reagan's.
Republican Bob Dole was one of the five, along with Democrats Paul Simon, Albert Gore Jr., Richard Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt. Dole and Simon spelled out their reasons and pledges more fully than the others.
''A Dole presidency,'' the senator said, ''will feature frequent press conferences. No doubt about it, keeping open lines to the nation's media -- local and national -- should be an essential component of any administration.'' Dole also said he was open to suggestions on ways of improving the format of formal news conferences, adding ''I have no problem with ad hoc, curb-side press conferences or wherever else it is convenient to answer questions.''
Simon, a journalist before he became an Illinois politician, was the Democrat whose answer showed the clearest appreciation of the stakes.
''Twice a month might be reasonable'' for news conferences, he suggested, ''with more frequent meetings with the press when a major issue arises. This should ease the anticipation that now builds up before a rare press conference. A presidential press conference should be a means of getting information to the American people. It should not be a sideshow.''
As for arrangements, Simon correctly observed that ''the present format would be workable if used more regularly.'' He added: ''It would be great to go back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt, when reporters gathered in front of his desk to talk about the day's news. The size of today's press corps obviously makes that unworkable. But I would like to find a way to meet with small groups of reporters from time to time -- out of the glare of TV -- and talk about issues in some depth.''
With examples like Dole and Simon, the National Press Foundation has done a good job of raising the issue. Now the rest of us in journalism have to do our part in prodding those candidates who have answered only vaguely or not at all to put their planned news-conference practices on the record.
This is not special pleading or improper pressure on the part of the press. The presidential news conference serves a vital function that can be abandoned only at risk to our democracy. The election of a new president offers a golden opportunity to ensure its revival, and the press has a special obligation to see that the opportunity is not missed.