For Presidential Interviews, It's A 'Time Management Game'

What are the acceptable terms of interviews with rarely interviewed government officials? Earlier this week we took note of some comments from Gareth Butler, editor of the BBC's "The Politics Show." He wrote that a recent interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair involved far fewer "shenanigans" from the PM's office ("you can't ask questions about this or that, you can only have x minutes, it has to be such-and-such a location") than most people assumed occurred with such rare sit-downs.

We asked Scott Pelley, who recently conducted a lengthy interview with President George W. Bush for "60 Minutes," about what the terms were – if any – for that exclusive. Pelley, who just returned from Iraq, was able to respond to us today. Here's what he told us in an e-mail:

The White House knows it cannot impose any limits on the scope of questioning. As a result, they never ask for such limits.

The limit they can, and do, impose is on time. When we did the interview at Camp David they were very strict. We had 10 minutes for the walk and talk and 20 minutes for the sit down.

In both venues, a White House staffer stood behind the president holding up time cards (5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, etc.) so that I could see them. The time restraint is a clever way to curtail follow up questions.

Every interview with a president is, foremost, a time management game. To compensate for this, a good interviewer narrows the scope of the interview and allows himself time for follow ups. I call this going "narrow and deep." When people ask me, "Why didn't you ask him …?" -- that's my answer.

After every interview with the president, I spend the next several nights, sleepless, thinking about what I should have asked.