At the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau, where I worked for a time, there was a photograph on the wall of my first bureau chief, the late and legendary newsman from Chicago, Ed Lahey, with his memorable words of advice: “Do not fawn upon the mighty.”
That comes to mind when I read transcripts of presidential news conferences. If they are not fawning, they are deferential and the questions are tentative, circular, or designed to be hit out of the park. Like these questions at an April 29 press conference: “On high oil prices, do you think it’s time to change course?” Or “Are you frustrated? Are you angry? Do you have any hope of being able to work with this Congress this year?” Or, “Are we winning in Afghanistan…Are we winning in Iraq?”
At presidential press conferences I attended too many years ago, a few of us would roll our eyes and murmur, “Say yes.” I confess that in my years covering the White House, I disliked the formal, televised presidential press conferences. Raised in the Lahey tradition, if I was following a lead and had a good question, I did not wish to share it with others. The press conferences were made for the television stars, and they were on their best behavior for their bosses who were watching. And even the print people dressed and acted their parts before the cameras, rarely challenging the president. Once a radio reporter asked the president why, if he was trying to make peace, he was sending ships off the coast. Her bureau chief told her later, “You’re supposed to ask how many ships, not question why.”
Then what are press conferences for? To get some new information? As I say, if I wanted to get new information, I would not use a televised press conference. I.F. Stone, for whom I worked briefly, did not attend press conferences. Sy Hersh doesn’t need a press conference. I had my sources in the White House or on Capitol Hill.
No, it’s not real information one expects at presidential press conferences. Most often the press becomes what Lenin called the “transmission belt,” providing the information the president and his administration wish to give you. And this administration, with a well-documented history of secrecy, deception, manipulation and outright lies, cannot be trusted at presidential press conferences to tell the truth. Sad to say, for the most part, what this president says doesn’t amount to much.
But as my friend Morton Mintz once told me, one can get a glimpse of the truth with a question that raises an issue (for the public and other reporters) in a provocative way. John F. Kennedy used to love impertinent questions because it challenged his talent for repartee. An impertinent question got Richard Nixon to say “I am not a crook.”
Thus I’d like to see some White House reporter get a rise out of George Bush, who doesn’t like to be challenged. One never knows how he would answer questions like these:
“Mr. President, there were 22 million jobs gained during the Clinton years and five million during your administration. Now we have rising unemployment, inflation, and a near recession–How can you say, as you have, that the tax cuts worked? Tell us how?”
“Retired Major General Anthony Taguba, among many others, says you and your administration have committed war crimes in the treatment of prisoners, many of whom were tortured and even killed. He said, “The commander in chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.” How do you answer to these charges?”
“Unless I am mistaken, you have not attended a single funeral for a service person killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. If so, why is that? Is that part of your policy not to let us see the arriving coffins?”
“ When he left the White House Prime Minister Olmert suggested that you or Israel would deal with Iran before the year is out. And some officials in this administration are concerned about the possibility of war with Iran. Can you assure us there won’t be another war or a shock and awe bombing campaign on your watch? Can you tell us the economic and political consequences of such actions?”