Why do grown men and women shout at the president of the United States almost every day?
What is it that causes some of us to behave in front of Ronald Reagan as though we never learned the rudiments of civilized behavior drilled into us by parents, teachers and Miss Manners?
The woman from Pennsylvania who wrote me, "Don't forget, you are invited into the president's home each day, you should behave like a guest," expresses what may well be the majority opinion of White House reporters as offensive louts.
But the question shouted on the run and the one-line answer have become the standard for communication in the Reagan administration. This is the way we do business -- not by our choice, but because it works to Mr. Reagan's advantage. And that's the way the White House wants it.
So it was that at a recent event in the Rose Garden one of the guests -- a teacher -- informed me that I had ruined his enjoyment of the entire event by shouting questions about the Bork nomination at the president. That sparked a loud, vigorous (and extensively reported) exchange, which also involved a colleague of mine and another guest.
Never mind that the first question wasn't asked until the ceremony was over and the president was on his way back into the Oval Office. Never mind that White House officials confirm that he expected a question about Robert Bork and had his answer ready. To some (but by no means all) of those present, it appeared disrespectful. An Ohio minister likened it to shouting in church after the service.
Indeed, the demand for a respect bordering on reverence appears frequently in mail from viewers. But though the White House is certainly an important national symbol, it is not a sanctuary. And the president is not a monarch. He is an elected executive responsible for leading and running the largest branch of government.
Institutional memory having contracted along with the national attention span, it may be difficult to remember that it hasn't always been this way.
Jimmy Carter talked to reporters -- and TV cameras -- four and five times a day, at least until the last grim months of his hostage crisis and defeat.
Reagan, during eight years as governor, held news conferences almost every week. As a candidate, he was accessible every day; indeed, as those of us who covered him soon learned, he found it hard to resist answering any question asked.
There was one problem. Because he is hard of hearing, reporters had to speak up. If we were more than a few feet away, we had to shout to get his attention. But shout I did, and Mr. Reagan almost invariably came over to talk and often said whatever was on his mind.
A few months of this in the White House was all it took to convince his inner circle that their president's tendency to shoot from the lip was a problem. But they couldn't keep him from coming to us, so they seized on the next-best solution: they simply kept us from coming to him.
Press lines were moved farther away, the number of reporters in so-called press pools was reduced, and the number of opportunities actually to see and cover the president was cut back.
Press conferences, never frequent because Reagan is not comfortable with them, vanished for months at a time when the administration was embarrassed. Since the Iran-contra scandal broke last November, for example, there have been two formal news conferences at the White House and one in Venice following the June economic summit.
So the White House press corps is reduced to shouted questions, and that suits the administration just fine. The president can snap back one of his one-liners if he chooses, or make an easy getaway if he doesn't.
And what does the public see? A genial Ronald Reagan, skillfully parrying the thrusts of an unruly mob of reporters. Small wonder then that we are viewed as a bunch of aggressive, ill-mannered scolds.
A print colleague, annoyed by the intrusiveness of television and its reporters, challenged me the other day. "Why do you need to see Ronald Reagan?" he demanded. "We went for days without seeing Ike, but we got everything we needed from Jim Haggerty."
Well, times have changed. It doesn't seem too much to ask of a president who has relied so on television and used us so well that he submit to questioning that goes beyond quips and one-liners.
Sometimes, it's true, the clamor rises to a level for which there's no excuse -- as it did in the White House briefing room the day Mr. Reagan announced tentative agreement with the Soviets on a nuclear arms treaty.
But the noise you hear at the White House is a bid for the president's attention -- and not without respect. In fact, there doesn't have to be any shouting at all -- but it is the people in the White House who make the rules. Meanwhile, most of us are not content to function simply as transmission belts for whatever the administration is handing out on a given day.
Let's hope that we can extract a promise from each of the candidates that things will be different after Jan. 20, 1989.
Never mind the reporters. It's the American public that deserves better.
The writer is senior White House correspondent for CBS News.