Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Questioning Presidents

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Questioning Presidents

Article excerpt

On February 7, 2001, as the new Bush White House settled into a rhythm, a handful of reporters from various news organizations secured some time to interview Larry Lindsey, the president's top economic advisor, who had also advised George W. Bush during his campaign.

Young White House Press Office aides--graduates of the hard-fought Bush-Cheney campaign and new to Washington--walked the band of reporters to the West Wing lobby to await a final escort to Lindsey's office. The reporters sat on a cushy sofa and several chairs, browsed courtesy copies of the morning newspapers, and enjoyed the sweet scent of blush roses arranged by the White House florist specifically for the receptionist's desk just 10 feet away.

The reporters, most of whom had covered Bush's predecessors, understood right away that the president's new press team had made a small mistake, but they remained mum, accepted the hospitality and made themselves comfortable. The West Wing lobby, which is basically a hushed waiting room, was, in an era long gone, accessible to reporters covering presidents. But over the decades, journalists found themselves confined to press quarters near Richard Nixon's covered-over swimming pool. They are escorted during all movements (and often roped off like a herd) and branded as "PRESS" with color-coded ID tags. Bush, like his father before him, frowns on reporters who shout questions and simply ignores journalists who try waving their hands to summon his attention.

Loitering in the lobby, therefore, afforded the band of scribblers unsupervised access to both observe and question the president's top aides and their associates, who strode through the clubby expanse in mid-conversation, aiming for a doorway that opens to the VIP offices beyond. The longer the reporters sat, the richer the pickings. Karen Hughes, then the president's communications counselor, had never laid eyes on some of Washington's economic reporters when she nodded a cheery hello while sailing by. Seizing the opening, the journalists identified themselves and brought her to a halt with a few impromptu questions. Clearly caught off guard, Hughes frowned, volunteered as little as possible and beat a hasty retreat. The reporters chuckled as they returned to their seats, knowing the lobby would be off limits to the Fourth Estate for the remainder of Bush's tenure.

Karen Hughes and her colleagues could have learned from the assembled journalists there, if they had sought a few tips. On inauguration day 2009, when the new president and his White House team trudge indoors and peal off their thermal underwear after the final parade float turns off Pennsylvania Avenue in the dark, there will be three groups of people who at that moment know a lot more about the White House and presidential routines than they do.

First are the members of the residence staff who control the president's new house and the traditions of the presidency within it; second are the career executive branch workers who understand what continuity of government really means and can be an incoming president's best friends; and third is the White House press corps, including journalists who know the Oval Office well enough to give the new president an engaging tour and seasoned enough to remind him that, in a democracy, communicating is governing.

No president can move an agenda forward or win reelection without majority support of the American people, and a free press continues to furnish voters with the best fact-based translations of the president and his chosen administration. History is littered with tales of newly inaugurated chief executives who vowed to soar over the heads of the media to control their messages and speak directly with voters; all of them revised those goals when they dug into the job. Even with the explosion of the Web and other instantaneous, direct-connect forms of communication, presidents remain locked in a mutually dependent and politely adversarial relationship with the White House press corps. …

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