The strategy for Reagan administration communications in its second and last term seems to be to make the most of controlled programs -- nationally televised prime-time talks, in which the networks are commandeered and an audience guaranteed, and weekly radio visits that are aired undisturbed by challenge or disagreement.
In this calendar year, President Reagan has made two major television appearances -- on the budget and tax revision -- and he is no novice at making the most of each one. He has also delivered 19 five-minute radio talks heard coast to coast on Saturdays and featured in Sunday morning newspapers. In addition, last week he made five speeches in behalf of his tax proposal, although he didn't mention such sleepers as canceling the elderly exemtion and jeopardizing public financing of campaigns.
But news conferences, where questions are not always the ones anticipated or desired, have been limited to only four -- three in Washington and one in Lisbon, during the return from the Bonn economic summit. With no other access, reporters have had to shout their questions as the helicopters whirled -- hardly a satisfactory way to deal with the nation's questions.
Early in this term, President Reagan's press spokesman, Larry Speakes, was confident that the president would hold more frequent news conferences than in the first term and there was talk of one per month. With five months of the calendar year gone and four conferences held, the modest goal is still unreached.
More than a century ago, the British statesman Edmund Burke said, "It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. . . . It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfaction, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interests to his own."
When one reads that a White House director of communications, Patrick Buchanan, has declined for weeks to accept journalists' inquiries, one is bound to wonder whether the president's men accept the concept that they are accountable, that they have a responsibility to the electorate and the press.
Sure, Mr. Buchanan is now returning calls, even holding interviews, but the change came only after he was whacked by networks and newspapers for hiding away in the White House bunkers. If he hadn't felt the heat, he might still be playing remote aristocrat, ignoring the calling commoners.
Now comes Attorney General Edwin Meese III, himself recently moving from the White House to head the Department of Justice. He decreed a move for the journalists covering his department from alongside his office to alongside the public affairs office four flights below as a sound "management move."
His management terminology was correct. The move was not sought or desired by the media. Reporters covering the attorney general attacked the shift with one veteran terming it a "disaster" and recalling how often he had obtained news by watching the coming and going at the attorney general's offices. Unlike other attorneys general, this one has declined to make his daily log public. The move ends a half-century of direct access by reporters, a period that included the departure of Attorney General John Mitchell before marching off to prison.
And so the media, watchdogs for the public, are relegated to space deep in the bowels of the Justice complex, four floors below the master's suite. It would take a long telescope to see who's seeing him now.
You may have read of so-called media elitism. I suggest that the administration's master control over presidential availability suggests an elitism more reminiscent of royalty than democracy. When his sub-alterns also follow the strategy of refusing to respond to news questions or shipping reporters off to departmental Siberia, they treat their public responsibilities as if they were dukes and the rest of us were only around to pay the taxes for the royal suites and switchboards.