Good Questions and Good Answers
Briefly, the best press conference questions are those which compel a president to divulge a new piece of information about his public self, his administration, or his policies. The best presidential answers are those which enhance the president's leadership image to the American people. The best press exchanges are those which reveal that the president is exercising legitimate leadership and the press is exercising its legitimate watchdog role.
There is no contradiction in these standards; the irony is that a president can best enhance his leadership image by subjecting his presidency to a public accounting of its actions. If a president can respond persuasively to questions about a controversial act, that act is validated and the image of presidential leadership is enhanced. On the other hand, if a president takes the risk of exposing his controversial action to press questions and he does not respond persuasively, he loses credibility. His leadership capability is diminished. It was the administration decision to risk the November 19, 1986, press conference on the secret arms sales to Iran that undermined the leadership image of Ronald Reagan.
In the most platonic world, assessing presidential responses to press conference questions is a simple process. All questions are equally well stated, equally warranted, and equally timely. The president gets high marks if he answers every question truthfully and completely. He supports each answer with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate evidence. However, rating press conference exchanges on this rational criterion is not very helpful.
A press conference is not modeled on lawyer-witness exchanges in a