I have never been to a White House press conference, nor have I ever attended a dogfight, nor even a cow-chip heave. There is something about the ambiance of these debaucheries that just puts me off. Possibly it is the means employed. Possibly it is the ends sought. At any rate, these cultural events are not on my itinerary.
Besides, I can already witness a presidential press conference in the security of my own home, thanks to the wonder of television. My last opportunity came on Feb. 13, one day before the anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two days before the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine and three days before Grant took Fort Donelson in 1862. Better it would have been for my brothers in the press corps had they been on the losing side of those disasters than to have been in the White House on Feb. 13. On that evening, their ministrations brought them no honor and, considering the bedlam pervading the room, could have ended in just as much bodily injury as befell some of the less favored participants at the aforementioned news events.
It has been years since these curious spectacles informed Americans of anything we did not already know and dread. Is the average journalist a vulgar fellow? We know it. Are his days lighted solely by the dream that he will someday soundly embarrass some esteemed public figure? We know that, too. And, pursuant to this noble purpose, does he attend press conferences bearing questions cunningly sculpted to elicit secret information from a reluctant president? Is he promptly slaughtered by the president's effortless reply? Avert your eyes. It happens all the time.
The television presidential press conference had made thumpingly clear the sad condition of our Washington press corps. For the most part, the boys have only the slipperiest grasp on the present, no grasp on the past and, if they have any sense of the future, all it amounts to is an amorphous gallimaufry of hysterical premonitions.
Bear in mind, I am speaking in general terms. Some of the journalists are superb, but as a rule they are slow-witted, speak barbarous English and are utterly bereft of humor. At any rate, when assembled in the presence of the president and with the television cameras humming, the boys put on an unedifying show. It is distressing to see them and to know that foreign visitors may be watching.
The idea that a press conference populated by the Washington pres corps might illuminate policy is laughable. The public is probably better informed by the politicians' lies than by the journalists' questions. Still, the idea that the executive branch ought to be questioned about its policies is a good one and, in the hope of improving the quality of those questions, I have two suggestions.
The first is a modest one. Why not close the press conference to all but a handful of genuinely thoughtful journalists? This would return some dignity to these spectacles and convey more information to the public. Even more dignity and information would flow from my second suggestion. Why not scrap the press conference completely?
Government has grown so vast and complex that it is simply unrealistic to expect journalists to query the president in a penetrating way. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect the president to respond adequately. In place of the press conference, the president and his government ought to appear before a specially composed congressional committee made up of those members of the majority and minority parties who have special knowledge in various policy areas.
Exact details of such hearings would, of course, be formalized by participants, but the major consideration would be that the president answer informed questions with the support of those of his aides particularly responsible for those aspects of the policy being scrutinized. The proceedings should be kept short; half the conference could be devoted to domestic policy, half to foreign policy. The conference could be televised, and the journalists could cover the proceedings and grouse at will.
Now I am sure that this proposal will please neither the press nor the president. To be denied the opportunity to ham it up on television will doubtless be marked down by the journalists as an infringement of their sacrosanct First Amendment rights. The president,no longer able to launch sonorities over the heads of flat-footed journalists, will be placed in a very uncomfortable position; he will have to speak intelligently about matters of substance. For this I apologize.
Nonetheless, the British prime minister regularly faces a parliamentary inquiry similar to the process I am suggesting. If Margaret Thatcher can do it, Jimmy Carter can do it. I have read his biography; he can do anything. And now he will be able to perform in a more dignified setting.