All Press Conferences Are Stages And The Press Are Merely Players

It's a tricky thing, this presidential news coverage game. While every journalist assigned to the White House would like more opportunities to question any president, when a press conference does take place, it almost always seems more like message control than news. It's just the way it is.

Despite arguments to the contrary, a presidential press conference is basically a tool for the president to speak to the American people. Yes, members of the press are there and, mostly, are dedicated to asking the "tough" questions that demand answers. But let's face it, no matter what questions are asked, the "news" emerging from these sessions is almost inevitably going to be just what the president wants it to be.

President Bush at times has been criticized harshly by those in the media for holding too few of these gatherings with reporters. But during the past few months, they've become a fairly regular feature, covered by 24-hour cable channels and the networks, including CBS. Today's edition came in the midst of an administration push to bolster support for the war in Iraq. So the press has gone from clamoring for more to getting what they asked for. So why does it seem so one-sided?

The simple answer is, the president has the upper-hand in this relationship. Not unlike his speech in Cleveland yesterday, where Mr. Bush answered a dozen or so unscreened, unscripted questions from the audience, facing a White House press corps gives the president a chance to project his message. Yesterday, he was asked whether or not a belief in a coming Armageddon led to his decision to invade Iraq. His response: that 9/11 changed his thinking about national security.

Today, he interestingly called on Helen Thomas, longtime fixture of the White House press corps and a very vocal and harsh critic of this president. For a good deal of his presidency, Bush has avoided the tradition of giving Thomas the first question of each press conference and has come to ignore her presence altogether in the past few years. Today he pointedly called on her.

The exchange that followed was an ideal demonstration of how a press conference works to the advantage of any president who's even moderately versed in the art. For those who complain the press does not ask the tough questions, they don't get much tougher than the one Thomas asked today:

Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime.

Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, your Cabinet officers, former Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth -- but what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, the quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?

The crux of her question was -- we all know you lied about the reasons to go to war, now tell us the real reason. Pretty tough question, one that President Bush hit right back up the middle, at least perception-wise. Bush forcefully responded, "I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- that I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect." Then, when Thomas tried to speak again, Bush cut her off and asserted: "No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true." Two more attempts by Thomas to jump in were met with similar responses.

Now, step back just a second from your feelings about the issues being discussed. Not easy, I know and this exchange is sure to be used by both sides of the Iraq debate to bolster their positions. But president Bush didn't call on Thomas to change her mind or anyone else's, he called on her because he knew what kind of question he would get and because he knew he could respond in a forceful manner.

Like his speech in Cleveland and the ongoing push to rally support for the war, President Bush was not speaking to critics during his press conference, he was seeking to remind those who, according to the polls, are losing faith in the reasons they supported him and his agenda in the past. What better way to do that than spar with critics head-on? Will it work? The current PR offensive may result in a temporary boost to the president's image and support but as long as the violence in Iraq continues, it's unlikely to stick for long.

Ironically, the way the media covers Iraq on a daily basis is far more influential than the questions they ask at a press conference. Some critics and observers may well see the administration launching a less-than-subtle attack on the media but that seems simplistic and ineffectual as a strategy. No, today's press conference was another part of President Bush's effort to remind those who voted for him that he is still a forceful, confident leader focused obsessively on the nation's security.

The extent to which the press corps ends up looking like a conduit for that is an added benefit for the White House. Surely many headlines and leads will reflect the impression ("a resolute President Bush today defended the war …") that the White House wants to reinforce. But you can't blame them, it's the way our process works. There is no Constitutional requirement for the president to ever speak to the media at all and you can bet none do unless it suits their purposes in one way or another. Skilled politicians can take any question and answer it in a way that seems to benefit themselves.