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Restore sanity to press conferences

DEAR Mr. President-elect: Before you even take office, Mr. Bush, why not come to grips with a problem recent presidents, except John F. Kennedy, have not resolved satisfactorily: what to do about press conferences.

President Reagan met with the press the other day after a year in which he held only four get-togethers with the news media. He smiled and quipped: ``We've got to stop meeting this way.''

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He received a good laugh. But the dearth of press conferences, only 48 in eight years, told another story: how much Ronald Reagan disliked these sessions.

I can't guarantee that you will like presidential press conferences - particularly when you and your administration make blunders the media will grill you on.

But from the outset, you could strike a deal with members of the press that would make these conferences fairer to them and, at the same time, more palatable to yourself. Most important, the American people would gain by being assured of a steady flow of information.

1.Announce that you will meet weekly in your Oval Office or the Press Room with the regulars of the White House press corps. Include TV reporters with notebooks - but without TV cameras.

You could use Franklin Roosevelt as the presidential example you are following. FDR met weekly with reporters who daily covered his comings and goings. That was before television. Roosevelt did not allow reporters to quote him directly.

In that informal context the President spoke rather freely. Those reporters involved uniformly praised the arrangement.

You will have to put up with a storm of protest from the television lords. But you can't have television cameras at work without turning the session into what it has become: show business where you must guardedly address every word to a vast audience.

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The ``press conference'' has become a misnomer. It's really a ``television conference,'' with print media being suffered more than welcomed. Did you notice how White House television reporters dominated the questioning at that last conference - and at all conferences?

Television executives expect their White House reporters to ``star'' at these sessions. And presidents, aware of the power of television, quickly turn the stage over to TV after first giving a token opportunity to wire-service reporters.

2.Hold a regular monthly television conference. But invite only the regulars. Reward those reporters who cover you every day and travel with you. Don't let the others in. Then abolish the ``pecking order.'' Don't have seats assigned in advance. And if you reinstate a lottery system to determine who will be asking the questions, you will take the urgency out of grabbing a front-row seat.

President Ford experimented with the lottery. It didn't make the losers happy - particularly those who felt that through seniority they had a right to question the president. But good questions were asked by the winners in these lotteries. And what we found was that reporters from outside television and the big newspapers are perfectly capable of asking what should be asked.

The lottery is not a perfect answer. It makes the conferences less spontaneous. So why not have a lottery that would determine the first five or six questions, then throw the session open to everyone?

That's my recommendation, Mr. Bush. It's not a perfect solution. But it would mean that you could - without hours of preparation - meet weekly with the press in relaxed, on the record sessions. You might even come to look forward to them.

A weekly session would allow you to respond quickly to pressing questions. This would keep questions from piling up. By relieving pressure from members of the press through more frequent meetings, the monthly television sessions might become less contentious and more palatable to you.

You would have to commit yourself to only 12 TV sessions a year. That means you would only have 12 dips in the pressure tank to look forward to!

Now we know that President Kennedy made TV press conferences look easy. And his boffo performances set a precedent, making it obligatory that presidents follow his example.

Kennedy had that wonderful wit, and a way of turning tough questions around so that the other reporters would laugh at the questioner.

But Kennedy wasn't around very long. And the reporters, for the most part, were quite friendly to the new President. Things might have changed if Kennedy had stayed on for a term or two.

Since those days, presidents have found TV sessions less than enjoyable - and often painful. Their problems often become so immense that they simply aren't up to a cross-examination by the press before a national TV audience.

This results in their ducking out on the sessions and causes tensions between press and president that grow and mar the relationship beyond repair.

So why not work out a system right from the outset. You could promise to meet regularly with the press, and those difficult TV conferences could be minimized without evoking too much protest from the media.

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