Before we all swoon in admiration of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's undoubted skills as a communicator, let's tip the hat to the guy on the other side of the bargaining table, George Bush. Bush has made a significant contribution to glasnost, American style, by reviving the badly battered institution of the presidential news conference. The session he held with White House reporters just before the Memorial Day weekend was the 50th of his term -- a rate of better than one every 10 days that beats every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Astonishingly, Bush has had more news conferences in 17 months than Ronald Reagan held in eight years.
Not only are the news conferences more frequent, they are more substantive, more civil and more useful than those of the recent past. It's all tied together. Frequent news conferences permit reporters to explore a few topics in some depth. The agenda doesn't get overcrowded, nor is there nearly as much pressure on individual reporters to gain recognition from the president. They know there will be another day.
Bush deserves credit for reviving the news conference from the doldrums into which it had fallen in Jimmy Carter's final embattled years and throughout the Reagan terms. He accepted the suggestion from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy that the news conferences be workaday affairs, held in the White House briefing room, principally for the journalists who regularly cover the president. And he has kept to a schedule far more frequent than my fellow Barone panelists and I had the courage to suggest in the report we wrote before the 1988 election.
The shift from prime-time evening hours and the ornate setting of the East Room, where Reagan held court for an oversized press corps, has proved to be crucial in improving the quality of the exchanges. In the East Room, the jousting for recognition reached ridiculous extremes and the questioning had no theme or continuity.
In the briefing room, by contrast, the White House regulars -- not forced to compete with celebrity journalists or publicity seekers -- concentrate on gaining information for their stories, rather than getting attention for themselves. And a good deal of the time, Bush cooperates with them.
At the 50th news conference, for example, the president began with an announcement of his controversial decision to continue liberal trade policies with China despite its leaders' repression of dissent. He took four pointed questions on that topic. Without histrionics, reporters for the Associated Press and the Boston Globe put to the president the criticisms others in the foreign-policy world had made about the impact of his China policy on that country and on pro-democracy forces around the world.
The president offered his case. And that night on the network news and in the next morning's newspapers, his answers were juxtaposed with the contrary views of Chinese student exiles and Capitol Hill critics of both parties. The news-conference exchanges became part of a broader dialogue.
Thanks to the brevity of the well-phrased questions and the president's readiness to respond, the half-hour allotted to the news conference permitted eight questions and answers on U.S.-Soviet relations and Gorbachev's handling of the Lithuanian independence movement and five questions on taxes and the budget-deficit negotiations -- certainly the two most newsworthy topics on the Washington agenda. There were also pairs of questions and follow-ups on the savings-and-loan bailout, U.S. policy toward Israel and Cambodia, U.S.-Mexican relations, the proposed ban on semi-automatic weapons and even statehood for the District of Columbia.
In almost every instance, the president showed himself well informed. He was ready to declare or reiterate a clear policy when he had one, and also willing to say that he was not ready to pronounce judgment on other issues that were still being negotiated with Congress or foreign governments. As much as any politician can when he is speaking on the record, Bush shared his puzzlement and frustration at the obduracy and complexity of some of the tough problems that were raised. ''It does cause discomfort,'' he said when asked about criticism he received on his policy toward Cambodia. And he was equally ready to concede that there is legitimacy to views other than his own in most of the other policy areas on which he was questioned.
Bush's civility and the open-mindedness he displays in the briefing room drain the news conferences of any tension and lead some journalists to complain that Bush provides few headlines. Since he also disdains televised speeches, some reporters gripe that he is not making news.
That's a lot less important, however, than the fact that he makes himself accessible for frequent questioning and lets the presidency become part of the political debate.
If we in the press can't find the means to convert this access into greater public understanding of the issues, then the failure is ours. Bush is doing his part -- and doing it well.