Merv makes it but press still waits for Q&A
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?
All sides agree that Reagan is an excellent communicator; he is easy, self-assured, and good-natured. Critics argue that it is particularly important to have a sharp follow-up question in these circumstances.
Reagan's nationally addressed weekly radio broadcasts have been successful. They have not been directly partisan and Democrats generally have let them pass. Now, while the President has gone two months without a formal press conference, he did make himself available for an exclusive interview with TV personality Merv Griffin, who put polite questions to the President. Example (on the economy): ''You're pleased with how it's going?'' Answer: ''Yes, very much so.'' Expanding his reply, Reagan said that he thought the economic recovery had begun. Mr. Griffin prompted him: ''We heard a lot about Reaganomics: I never see that phrase any more.''
''Yeah, that's because it's working!'' the President retorted with a smile.
News continues to flow as usual from the White House, meanwhile, without the intervention of the news media. Reagan and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang will share views on US-Chinese relations during an exchange of visits next year, it was announced. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger currently is visiting Peking. The Chinese premier will visit the US in January and Reagan will see Peking in April.
The White House says the President intends to visit the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea in November. There is no change in the President's plans to visit Manila, despite recent violence there over the assassination of Benigno Aquino, the opposition leader.