All Presidents resent the prying eyes of the press and all Presidents practice secrecy in matters beyond national security. But none in modern times has carried secrecy so far with such success as President George W. Bush. If the father once famously declared from the campaign stump “Message: I care,” the son’s message seems to be “It’s none of your business.”
You only had to watch President Bush’s press conference of March 6, 2003, to understand this. He seldom strayed from the two or three messages he came to deliver, never mind the question. It was, as the President observed, a “scripted” event meant not so much to inform as to persuade. Reporters who were there to get information found themselves cast in the role of “spear carriers,” made part of the “set.”
Some very able reporters made valiant efforts to draw the President out on matters of importance, and it is not primarily their fault when they came away empty. But here are some thoughts on how to sharpen the effort when next the press has a chance to question the President:
Be respectful, but blunt and direct. Several reporters began by thanking the President for calling on them, and a couple began by saying “Good evening, Mr. President.” While all that is very polite, remember, this is not a social occasion. This is business; believe me, that’s how the President views it. And the press should not be there as supplicants, but as one side of a dialogue, the intent of which should be to truly inform the public.
Don’t ask multiple part questions. Ask one question. Make it simple and pointed. I sympathize with reporters, many of whom haven’t had a chance to question the President for months, when a two- or three-part question tumbles out. But do that and the President has the option of answering part a, part b, part c, or none of the above. “Will you veto the military bill, sir,” gives a reporter a better chance of getting an answer than asking, “Will you veto the military bill, and what about the dispute between the defense and state departments on aid to Turkey, and can you tell us when you might deliver your roadmap to peace in the Middle East?” Ask that kind of multiple part question and the answer might well be another expression by the President of how much he loves our country and how much he admires our brave troops. Who can remember that he didn’t answer any of the questions? When asked directly, he might not say whether he intends to veto the military bill, but at least it will be glaringly obvious that he didn’t answer the question.
Do not help the President come up with an answer. Do not say “Sir, everyone understands this is a sensitive subject, and you may not want to comment on it since other governments are involved, but ….” If the President wants to avoid answering by saying it is a sensitive subject, let him—he’s a big boy who knows how to handle himself. Don’t give him the chance to use you as his foil and, while I’m on this subject, don’t ask the President if he would “care to comment.” He has every right to answer “no,” and where do you go from there? Just ask him the question and let him decide whether and how to answer.
Follow up on a colleague’s question if it’s important and the President has dodged it. There are always more subjects to address than time to address them, and this is a judgment call. But occasionally the news is made in a second stab at the subject rather than the first. It’s worth doing even if it doesn’t sound that original to the boss.
All of this brings me to a final point addressed not to reporters but to their bosses. Reporters understand they are not in the White House press room to win a popularity contest. People feel strongly about a President and are either for him or against him, and reporters who ask pointed questions will displease a lot of people.
What the boss needs to do is back up the reporter when readers or viewers or White House aides complain. I was very fortunate that the late Roone Arledge was head of ABC News when I covered Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Arledge listened to my critics but turned them aside when he found the criticism to be unjustified. That gave me the ability to ask my questions without worrying about whether they were politically correct.
I could then ask a tough question like the one I asked Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1982: “Mr. President, tonight you have blamed this continuing recession on Congress and mistakes of the past. Doesn’t any of the blame belong to you?
‘Yes,’ replied President Reagan, ‘I was once a Democrat.’”
Laughter, exit reporter. Oh, well, sometimes nothing works. But you’ve got to keep trying.
Sam Donaldson is host of “Sam Donaldson Live in America,” a three-hour weekday national radio program. He became a correspondent with ABC News in 1967 and has reported on all but one political convention since 1964 and seven presidential campaigns. He was twice White House correspondent (1977-1989 and 1998-99), a panelist on “This Week With David Brinkley,” and co-anchor of “This Week.”