As the second in seniority among White House correspondents, I have asked questions of 15 press secretaries.
The ninth of these, Joe Lockhart, was the worst I have ever covered – followed closely by both of Obama’s: Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney.
I began with Richard Nixon’s press secretary, the late Ron Zeigler. Among the best were Jim Brady, Marlin Fitzwater and Ari Fleischer.
But I consider the very best, from the standpoints of fairness, truthfulness and a sense of humor, one of President Clinton’s press secretaries: Mike McCurry.
I first became acquainted with this charmer when he was director of communications for the Democratic National Committee in July 1990.
He sent the following letter to one of the radio stations on which I was broadcasting:
“As you can imagine, Mr. Kinsolving’s commentary tends to provoke the strongest reactions in these quarters. They are uniformly bizarre, wild, off-the-mark and utterly entertaining, and I imagine that he generates a good deal of response from your audience. Count us in. We would rather hear him than not hear him, even if it’s only for the grand theater of it all.”
Hence, I was sorry, indeed, that my being on the air at night precluded my opportunity to cover a recent Washington, D.C., news media event where Mike McCurry presided. It featured a number of retired media who once covered the White House.
U.S. News & World Report’s Paul Bedard covered and reported this event – which went unreported by all of the rest of the nation’s old Big Media – to their absolute shame.
- “Several veteran and prize-winning journalists who covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush say that the current crop of White House correspondents are too timid and deferential and have played a role in killing the impact of presidential news conferences.”
- “If you watch an Obama news conference, and watched a Bush news conference previous to that, where correspondents sat in their seats with their hands folded on their laps, it’s as if they are in the room with a monarch and they have to wait to be recognized by the president,” said Sid Davis, the former NBC Washington bureau chief who covered nine presidents. “It looks like they are watching a funeral service at (Washington funeral firm) Joseph Gawler’s and it shouldn’t be that way.”
- Added Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Haynes Johnson, “It’s all very stale, very structured, very pale.”
- And long-time NBC, ABC reporter Sander Vanocur: “You want to know what’s wrong with the press? The press is what’s wrong with the press.”
They and others anchored a media panel organized by the White House Historical Association. McCurry moderated the discussion from the very same State Department Dean Acheson Auditorium where Kennedy eventually conducted 60 televised news conferences with ease and humor.
When the topic turned to today’s White House press corps, these grizzled veterans were dismissive, calling them weak imitations of their Cold War predecessors. Davis said: “I don’t like today’s news conferences. Kennedy’s were thoroughly unrehearsed, natural – and they worked, to a large extent. Today’s versions look like they are rehearsed.”
“Worse,” he said, reporters look like stenographers. “I think democracy is noisy. The news conferences should get back to what they were, even if people are going to raise their voices.”
Former “Today” show newsman John Palmer went so far as to suggest that a weakened press, a 24-hour news cycle, coupled with presidents who don’t like live press conferences, have killed the impact of the events. “I think we are witnessing the demise of the televised news conference. I think its time has passed,” he added. “The news conference won’t have the big command it had before.”
McCurry, however, said that the situation hasn’t become that bad. “Reports of the press conference’s death are exaggerated, I think,” he added. “Presidents will need a forum like that to clear the air and give at least the appearance of accountability – and the press will continue to want to demonstrate its relevance by standing up and speaking truth to power.”
But he conceded that what Palmer called the “golden age” of presidential news conferences, like the videos of an engaging JFK shown at the panel discussion, might be over. “Presidents who don’t like press conferences will labor through them, but they won’t have the magic of some of what we watched.”