Dwight Eisenhower, the last Republican president to serve two full terms, held 99 press conferences during his first term. Ronald Reagan, recently elected to a second term, has held only 28 press conferences so far.
How he will deal with the press in his second term is uncertain, but first indications suggest few conferences and a no-growth policy on information coming from the White House.
After making history with his electoral victory, President Reagan was asked last week whether he would hold frequent and regular press conferences, "say twice a week, every month." His reply was ambiguous and noted that he had provided "other opportunities."
A reporter followed up. "Well, sir, you consider that press conferences by the plane when we're shouting questions at you that are not seen by the American public the actual equivalent to when you have a televised news conference, when everyone can tune in and get the give-and-take unfiltered?"
The president responded, "Well, I think it's pretty plain. I'm not talking about a shouted question as I get into the car, I'm talking about stopping, as I am here, and taking your questions. Listen, I've recognized one and then I know that our time is up, over, and I've got to go."
What an irony! Here is the man known -- and proven -- as "the Great Communicator," endorsed for a second term by daily newspapers representing more than half the nation's readership, jousting with reporters who seek only half as much access to him as they had with President Eisenhower.
Why? Perhaps President Eisenhower had a different idea about his accountability to the nation and his obligation to make himself accessible to reporters.
A second term is a new start. It could be an occasion for normally competitive newspapers and their brethren in the electronic media to join in seeking more press conferences so they could better inform the public.
Getting a handle on the news requires more than press releases, staged events or photo opportunities. News conferences provide a chance for a serious exchange on such matters as Soviet planes in Central America or future relations with India or administration tax planning. They are a good way to correct misunderstandings, to educate and to help us all comprehend. They can serve a chief executive facing a divided Congress and seeking deeper understanding by the populace.
For a president basking in a great vote of confidence, with no concerns about a future election, they are practically risk-free.
Newspapers don't need press conferences in order to fill white space; but they do need conferences in order to better serve all of you. A half-hour conference a month adds up to 24 hours or one day of the next four years. Aren't citizens entitled to that amount of information from the man in charge?
Three weeks ago I noted in this column that The New York Times had given the back of the hand to The Post's exclusive interview with Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko. Since then I have learned The Times did credit The Post in later editions not distributed in Washington, but I have also received forceful reminders from other publications charging that The Post has more often sinned than been sinned against. A sampling:
James Doyle, assistant editorial director of the Army Times and Journal Newspapers, said that during his 19 years in Washington with The Boston Globe, Washington Star and Newsweek, "I've found The Post to be a prime offender in ripping off stories" from other papers.
Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, pointed out his paper put The Post story on page 1, ran a followup and a lead editorial, all with credit to The Post. However, "Among journalists both The Post and The New York Times are notorious for ignoring, down-playing or trying to knock down legitimate news first reported by other newspapers. If The Post or The New York Times breaks a story, it's big news and exclusive, but if another publication breaks it, it's inconsequential or a 'leak' or both. . . . The biggest losers are the readers."