Credit Ronald Reagan, his press secretary, James Brady, and a committee of wise old heads from journalism and government, assembled by the White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, for a heroic effort to improve the battered instititution of the presidential press conference.
In utter defiance of the dictum that big-name commissions must issue reports that are both prolix and ineffectual, the Miller panel boiled its wisdom down to six pages -- and Reagan and Brady are putting it into effect.
The first step, taken last week, was to instruct the reporters to remain seated and raise their hands for recognition, instead of leaping and shouting to gain the president's attention.
The second step, soon to be tried, is a lottery system that will predetermine the reporters to be recognized -- without, of course, dictating the questions they ask.
The third step, to which the new president is also committed, is a pattern of press conferences that will mix the formal televised sessions with smaller, more intimate gatherings where Reagan will entertain questions from a few of the White House "regulars" in the Oval Office itself.
These were the three recommendations the Miller commission distilled from the mass of ideas put forward during the troubled recent history of the presidential press conference. And to their credit, Reagan and Brady are giving all three a chance.
I want to take a minute to underline why you, the reader, will benefit from these changes. But because this success is so rare, the people responsible for it deserve to be given credit.
The co-chairmen of the commission were Linwood Holton, the former governor of Virginia, and Ray Scherer, the vice president of RCA and before that, NBC News' White House correspondent. Their colleagues were Douglass Cater, former editor, White House staff member and author of an excellent book on the press in Washington; Julius Duscha, my predecessor at The Washington Post and head of the Washington Journalism Center; Carroll Kilpatrick, former White House correspondent for The Post; Robert Pierpoint, for years CBS News' White House man; James H. Rowe Jr., who has been dispensing wisdom around town since he served on FDR's staff; and Felicia Warburg Rogan, a Charlottesville writer.
They began with a shared belief that the presidential press conference, which started with Theodore Roosevelt, is a unique, valuable and irreplaceable institution for acquainting the public -- and, not so incidentally, the rest of the government -- with the president's thinking on issues of the day. They recongnized that the key to its success is the frequency of its use.
The press conference reached its high point under the second Roosevelt, who had reporters in around the desk twice a week, giving the world -- through their dispatches -- an unequaled and uninterrupted picture of the evolution of his thoughts and moods.
But they also recognized that the intimate Roosevelt-style press conference had fallen victim to two forces: the vast expansion of the Washington press corps and the presence of television cameras. The press conference had become a form of political theater, played by the president to the TV audience, in the presence of an obsterperous and distracting mob of reporters.
The TV types on the commission like Scherer and Pierpoint overcome their parochial prejudices and recognized that TV cameras are inherently inimical to intimate exchanges of information from the president to the press. But the others acknowledged that there is also a public interest -- to say nothing of a presidential interest -- in having some press conferences televised. Through TV, the president gets to take his case directly to the people. And the people get to judge with their own eyes his complexion, his temperament and his intellect.
The sensible compromise -- which Reagan and Brady have now adopted -- is to divide the press conferences between a big televised session at least once a month and more intimate gatherings for the White House "regulars" in between. Decorum at the big sessions is to be improved by keeping reporters in their seats and by prearranging the order of questioning, at least experimentally, through a lottery system.
Many of my colleagues have objections to one or another feature of the new arrangement, but I think we in the press have a professional obligation to try to make this expeiriment work. It is clearly in the public interest to facilitate regular exchanges at close range between the president and the reporters who cover him most frequently.
The rest of us can help those reporters mainly by staying out of their way. For five years, I have unilaterally absented myself from White House press conferences, not from a lack of curiosity, but because my presence would just add to the clutter. I am here to testify one can work productively in this town without asking the president a question on television.
Our colleagues on the Miller Center commission have done us and the president and the public a great service. We in the press can help by not being obstructionists as Reagan and Brady try to make a go of the new system.