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Merv makes it but press still waits for Q&A

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White House news reporters are restless. They haven't had a press conference in two months. As questions accumulate here, President Reagan has opened other lines of communication with the public: a regular five-minute Saturday radio broadcast, frequent appearances before special audiences, and, this week, an interview on a syndicated entertainment show with a TV celebrity. What all these other appearances lack, some assert, is the give-and-take between the President and critical journalists.

The gap in White House spot news communication has come at a time of lively events: political pressure surrounding Interior Secretary James G. Watt, use of US marines in Lebanon, exchanges with the Soviet Union over destruction of a South Korean commercial plane, a struggle in Congress over American aid to the International Monetary Fund, and other issues.

In parliamentary governments, there is a regular question period between prime minister and opposition party. In Washington, a system of White House press conferences has evolved beginning with Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt had twice-a-week conferences, totaling about 996 (over three terms and part of a fourth). With radio and then television, the number has varied. Other presidents: Truman, 322 (seven years); Eisenhower, 193 (eight years); Kennedy, 65 (three years); Johnson, 158 (five years); Nixon, 37 (nearly six years); Ford, 39 (over two years); Carter, 58 (four years).

Reagan's latest formal press conference, July 26, lasted half an hour, with an opening statement on Central America. Questions were polite but critical, and the President was frequently challenged. Example: Is the nation getting into another Vietnam situation in Central America? Is the administration discriminating against women?


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