Source Material: "Does This Constitute a Press Conference?" Defining and Tabulating Modern Presidential Press Conferences

By Kumar, Martha Joynt | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Source Material: "Does This Constitute a Press Conference?" Defining and Tabulating Modern Presidential Press Conferences


Kumar, Martha Joynt, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Shortly before Thanksgiving, when President Bush was in the Rose Garden granting his annual pardon to a turkey, he remarked on the apparent anxiety of the turkey. "He looks a little nervous, doesn't he," the president said to the assembled group of youngsters, parents, and teachers (Remarks at the annual pardoning 2002). "He probably thinks he's going to have a press conference." President Eisenhower put the same sentiment a bit more starkly when he began a press conference with his observation of the process: "I will mount the usual weekly cross and let you drive the nails. (1) President Bush, like his predecessors, may not like press conferences, but presidents hold them in spite of their own discomfort. On November 7, 2002, President Bush held a press conference in Room 450 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building almost ninety years after President Wilson gave the first formal news conference in the East Room of the White House on March 19, 1913. In their conferences, both men answered questions from reporters covering a broad range of topics, and the reporters came in on an equal-access basis. The fourteen presidents serving in the years between Presidents Wilson and Bush also held such conferences where they met with reporters to answer their queries. The presidential press conference represents one of the enduring types of presidential public appearances and demonstrates the ways in which a forum can adapt to the many changes in the environment within which presidents and reporters do their respective jobs. The two basic elements of the press conference mentioned above have remained, while at the same time there have been a great number of developments in the intervening years affecting the format of the conference, their frequency, the ground rules the two sides work under, the participants, and the locations where they take place.

The presidential press conference has demonstrated the way in which both sides have adapted to their own environments. In President Wilson's time, the press conference was an off-the-record event held in the White House with the president alone meeting with reporters. Today, the president speaks for the record and, in the past three administrations, most frequently holds his press conferences together with a foreign head of state, often in another country. Those differences, though, should not mask the importance of the forum as an important event for us as presidential scholars seeking to understand the evolution of presidential public appearances. In fact, they help us appreciate these changes. By studying the frequency, format, location, and participants, we can see the ways in which a president responds to reporters' needs for information and the president's own need to present himself and his programs but to do so in an environment where the risk level is manageable. In this article, I am looking at the variations in the basic elements of the press conference as seen in the modern era conferences of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In this period, one can see many of the above mentioned changes take shape. Rather than look for conferences that are similar in all aspects, as scholars we should be just as interested in the ways the conferences have adapted to their changing circumstances. I will leave to another article the issues of the importance and organization of press conferences from the viewpoint of White House officials and reporters. This piece is restricted to looking at the classification of press conferences and exploring their variety as expressed in the number of the locations where they are held and the assortment of participants in addition to the president.

Before we view the statistics of modern era conferences, we need to establish how we determine what a press conference is. Political scientists, historians, and government officials agree that press conferences are important as an aspect of a president's public record. …

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