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DIBACCO: 18 presidents with the boys on the bus

A Washington press institution marks a century of friendly fire

- - Friday, March 15, 2013

March 15 is the 100-year anniversary of the presidential news conference. Woodrow Wilson had been in the White House less than two weeks when his private secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, ushered 125 reporters into the Oval Office for what was the beginning of a love fest between traditionally adversarial parties. "Wilson Wins Newspapermen" read the New York Times of March 16. Wilson, standing behind his desk, did all the talking, stressing that "there were no doors to his office." He emphasized that he was highly honored to be a member of the National Press Club, and shook each reporter's hand. "I don't suppose that anyone who has entered this office has been as generously treated as I have been," he said ingratiatingly, "more generously than I deserve."

The tradition of the presidential news conference was thus firmly established, with every subsequent chief executive joining in the endeavor, although with strict requirements for the review of questions in advance, off-the-record or quotation restrictions, or the timing and length of conferences and selection of questioners.

The downside for the nation was that, from the time of George Washington, the press had been the only unfettered means to evaluate the highest officeholder. Every president found press criticism to be unyielding. Washington canceled his newspaper subscriptions because of the printed onslaught, and Thomas Jefferson was convinced that "newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds."

In 1798, John Adams was successful in getting the Sedition Act passed, which fined and jailed anyone for uttering or publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or the president of the United States, with intent to defame ... or to bring them or either of them, into contempt or disrepute."

Ulysses S. Grant was so disturbed by press criticism that he devoted the closing sentence of his second inaugural address to the matter:

"From my candidacy for my present office in 1868 to the close of the last presidential campaign, I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history, which today I feel I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication."

Presidents, in sum, were viewed as any other officeholder and as fair game for criticism. Even the deferential title of "Mr. President" and the practice of standing as he entered a room were honored in the breach.

Presidents were referenced as "Mister" (as in "Mr. Jackson"), and even eulogies paid their respects with the same leveling salutation.

No chief executive worked harder, but unsuccessfully, to be called "Mr. President" than James K. Polk, who kept a detailed diary. In the beginning months of his four years of entries, Polk always titled himself in the third person: "The president called a special meeting of the Cabinet" (Aug. 29, 1845). By year's end and for the remainder of his term, Polk reverted to the first person.

The irony of the presidential news conference is that its initiator, Woodrow Wilson, was an unlikely candidate to transform relations between the press and the White House. An academic, he was an authority on democratic government and, in particular, an admirer of the British parliamentary system, with its prime minister.

Wilson as president had no intention of making himself, like the prime minster, subject to press scrutiny. "Please do not tell the country what Wilson is thinking," he said at his second news conference on March 22, 1913. "Tell Wilson what the country is thinking." So the news conferences then and subsequently, especially after television entered the scene, had an aura of schmooze conferences -- that is, mostly genteel conversation controlled by the president.

As for the Brits, the government apple of Wilson's eye, over time they moved in the opposite direction. Instead of encasing the prime minister in a protected shell much like the British royalty, the officeholder since 1961 has been required to spend a half-hour each week in the House of Commons in what is known as "PMQs" ("Prime Minister Questions").

The prime minister is subjected to a bear pit, a grilling with shouting, interruptions, taunts, heckling and, most of all, hard or (as the Brits dub them) "blood-soaked" questions. Tony Blair called the PMQs "the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience" of his political life. "I count my blessings," said President George H.W. Bush, "for the fact that I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other." Among recent presidential candidates, only John McCain in 2008 indicated he would institute a similar type of grilling before both houses of Congress.

While the American presidential news conference is a far cry from the Brits' PMQs, a case can be made that it still has a tie to British history. That was when the first Congress under the Constitution debated the title that should be accorded the president. One suggestion that received widespread support, but was finally discarded, was "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same."

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.