100 years later, press conferences are still no fun for the president

This post originally appeared on Slate.

The first presidential press conference was a mistake.

President Woodrow Wilson's private secretary Joseph Tumulty, advised newspapermen in Washington that at 12:45 p.m. on March 15, 1913, the governor--he still called Wilson by his former title--would "look them in the face and chat with them for a few minutes." The new president expected to greet each man one-by-one to begin a personal relationship of the kind he had with reporters as governor of New Jersey. Up to that point, presidents had either ignored the press or fed them news in small, private, off-the-record meetings. Teddy Roosevelt spoke to reporters while his barber gave him his morning shave. But at the appointed hour, 125 newsmen appeared in Wilson's office. He didn't know what to do. They stood in their sack coats and vests in a semi-circle, four deep waiting for the new man to start pushing around some words.

"I did not realize there were so many of you," said Wilson after an awkward pause. It wasn't just that he was new to the job. At the time, the White House press room was barely bigger than the lavatory across the hall. "Your numbers force me to make a speech to you en masse instead of chatting with each of you, as I had hoped to do, and thus getting greater pleasure and personal acquaintance out of this meeting."

The speech en masse became a regular feature of the Wilson administration and, 100 years later, the White House press conference has retained the shape of that first meeting--awkward, impersonal, and with little pleasure for the president. The moment legitimized the press corps and put the president and the press in an extended clutch--entwined and angling for advantage. The rocky launch of this new institution highlights a truth about the limits of the presidency. Wilson knew when he took office what his successors only learned through hard experience, and that President Obama is learning afresh this week as his poll numbers dip in the wake of the sequestration fight: A president shapes public opinion, but he is not a master of it.

Wilson had a lot in common with the current president. He was accused of being too professorial and aloof, and he loathed the news culture for its focus on the trivial and commercial. Experience would only harden this view, but on that first meeting, he was anxious to show that he liked newspapermen and they were even more anxious to be liked. The New York Times headline of the encounter reads "Wilson Wins Newspapermen," and gushes from start to finish about how much the newspapermen loved Wilson and how Wilson seemed very much indeed to like them, too! "As he went on talking, the big hit he was making with the crowd became evident," wrote the Times reporter. "There was something so unaffected and honest about his way of talking under this unexpected call on him that it won everybody."

The Washington Post headline read, "Wilson, in friendly chat, says he likes reporters." The Post correspondent went wobbly, concluding the first paragraph of his dispatch by describing Wilson this way: "Standing there, where he could take in all with a sweep of his kindly eyes and with a genial smile." Though there were so many in the room, some clearly got a few turns on Wilson's lap.

At that first meeting, Wilson didn't do much more than blink those kindly eyes and tell the assembled men that he was fond of them and was sorry he hadn't visited sooner but that he was trying to "get onto his job." The White House usher didn't even note the event in his official book.

A week later, on March 22, Wilson held his second press conference. This time it made the usher's book and it was held in the East Room. The president came prepared. Apologizing for the raggedness of their first encounter, he said he wanted to build a working partnership with the 128 men who attended. "Please do not tell the country what Washington's thinking, for that does not make any difference. Tell Washington what the country's thinking." He asked reporters to "lend me your assistance as nobody else can," to bring "the freight of opinion into Washington ... to try and make true gold here that will go out from Washington."

The reporters were baffled. "Our function, at least as we saw it, leaving aside our duty, was to inform the country what Washington was doing," wrote New York Times Washington bureau chief Richard Oulahan later. The president, he said, "had come to Washington with a distinct prejudice against the place and what he conceived to be its mental atmosphere."

Wilson, the former political science professor, had a specific notion of how the president operated in a democratic system. He didn't want the press to broadcast his views. As historian David Michael Ryfe explains, Wilson thought the president should be a conduit for public opinion. He would not follow the mob, but he also couldn't lead the country where it didn't want to go. "A nation is an organic thing," wrote Wilson, "its will dwells with those who do the practical thinking and organize the best concert of action: those who hit upon opinions fit to be made prevalent, and have the capacity to make them so."

As president, Wilson would curate public opinion and then work with Congress to enact its will. But in order to have a sense of public opinion and tweeze out those views "fit to be made prevalent," he needed reporters to send out the fishing nets to collect as much information as possible.