To help President-elect Barack Obama prepare for his new job and the onslaught of media scrutiny that comes with it, three former White House press officials offered advice on the importance of media relations during a forum at George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium on Monday.
Former Gerald Ford press secretary Ron Nessen, former George W. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan and former White House communications director under President Bill Clinton Don Baer appeared in part three of the five-part series on avoiding pitfalls during the presidential transition. Moderated by Marvin Kalb, the forum also featured GW professor and former Eisenhower speechwriter Stephen Hess, author of a book on presidential transitions titled "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect."
Obama, who has promised to run the most transparent White House in history, has decided to disclose all donations, broadcast important meetings on C-SPAN and upload conferences, speeches and weekly podcasts to his transition Web site, Change.gov. The White House veterans agreed that while Obama's openness is an admirable goal, it is unlikely to last.
"I think it will survive as a goal until the first crisis," Nessen said.
Obama has also agreed to take part in press conferences every month, but the panel said that was also an ambitious goal.
"Sure, he'll have a regular press conference as long as it is in his best interest, but if a problem or scandal comes up, it stops like a guillotine," Hess said.
National security was the main concern for not disclosing information to the public during their time in the White House, the panel said. They said Obama will be forced to make the same decision.
"One of main criticisms of the [Bush] administration is that it has been overly secretive," said McClellan. "It's going to be a big challenge for Obama. Moments come up when you say, 'Hey, we really can't share that. People's lives are at risk.'"
Even if national security threats prevent Obama from communicating the goals and actions of his administration, the panel agreed that the one thing he must not do is lie.
"Sometimes you really can't tell the truth, especially if lives are in danger, but you can't outright lie. That's when you get in trouble," Nessen said. "Say, 'I cannot answer that at this time.' Never lie."
Baer referred to the withholding of information as "telling the truth slowly."
"It's not that the president or the press office personally want to be secretive, but it could be an issue of trying to get something through Congress or not having all of the information yet for it, and putting it out there could be harmful," he said.
Sophomore Joe Sangiorgio questioned what the standard should be for pushing back the press.
The panel agreed that complaining to an editor would only cause another story to be written and unless there is a factual error, the president should hold back from tampering with the press. They added that not having a complete background on an issue can be a legitimate excuse for not answering a question since answering with misleading information may cause harm.
"If you screw up on a domestic question, it leads to embarrassment," Nessen said. "Screw up on a foreign policy question and it could lead to a war."
Obama has been praised for using technology in his campaign and transition. But his Internet use had the panel worried about future messages to the public.
"We're moving into chaos with an Internet president," Baer said. "In some respects, it's great for the American public, but there could be serious problems."