[Martin Schram] A tale of presidential press conference secrets
Published : Jan 26, 2022 - 05:30
Updated : Jan 26, 2022 - 05:30
It had been months since the president’s last East Room press conference. And his team’s best and brightest understood that, just like sports stars, all-star political communicators can get rusty riding the bench, away from the game’s give-and-take.

This time they were determined to leave nothing to chance. Their president was sitting in the center of the Cabinet Room, awaiting his advisers’ tough rehearsal questions. They realized his last full-fledged press conference performance had been, well, a disaster -- and pundits were opining that maybe their boss no longer deserved being called “The Great Communicator.”

And now you’re thinking “Great Communicator?” We can’t be talking about Joe Biden -- can we? You’re right. We’re talking about Ronald Reagan and a rehearsal his advisers staged prior to an October 1981 prime time press conference.

Why? Because while you may have marveled at President Biden’s endurance during his almost-two hour marathon press conference Wednesday, you surely were mystified by his Ukraine gaffe and other conflicting, rambling statements. It’s a bit of history you never knew, about how Reagan’s team helped him overcome his own first year political problems -- and end up being re-elected by a landslide. It’s a tale about how Reagan’s advisers devised a secret press conference stratagem to help him when the going got tough. It may also help you weigh, with new perspective, both the shortcomings of Biden’s presidency and his common-man perseverance.

In 1981, Reagan’s advisers were worried because their president had gone four whole months without holding a full press conference. So Reagan and his advisers worked to make sure they had honed his answers for each issue to cover all of the essentials and communicate his message. Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes had the first question; communications adviser David Gergen had the next one. And Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman and other insiders critiqued each of Reagan’s replies to assure that they were both correct and concise.

Biden, whom I’ve long known, has always had a lively mind that has a way of conveying his thoughts in precisely the order that they popped into his mind. When he walked into the East Room Wednesday afternoon, it had been a mind-boggling 10 months since his last formal press conference. When the second questioner asked whether he needs to be “more realistic and scale down” his sweeping Build Back Better social spending proposals, Biden quickly answered: “No, I don’t think so” and lengthily explained why. But when pressed, he reversed and said he’d at least enact “pieces -- big chunks” of it, postponing the rest.

Inevitably, he was asked about what he and NATO will do if Russia’s Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Biden has repeatedly warned that if Putin’s troops invade, Russia will be hit with devastating sanctions and other responses. But this time he suddenly switched in mid-answer, saying: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.” In Ukraine, officials texted reporters that they were “shocked” that Biden seemed to give Putin a green light for a lesser attack. And Biden’s team began texting to undo that snafu even as the boss was talking. And Thursday Biden had to speak anew, trying to unsay what he said.

FLASHBACK: At the end of their rehearsal press conference, Reagan’s team gifted their boss with a secret surprise. Speakes showed Reagan a press conference seating chart and told his president what to do if he ever got in any trouble because of a reporter’s pesky follow up questioning. Just turn to the right and call on someone else -- because that’s where the staff has assigned seats to reporters they considered “known friendlies.”

In the real press conference, Reagan twice did just that. Once when ABC’s Sam Donaldson pressed him on whether he was seeking military superiority over the Soviets, Reagan turned to his right and called on someone who asked him if the US could afford, in effect, both guns and butter. Later, Reagan averted another determined follow-up by turning right and calling on a reporter who asked what he thought about sometime visiting China.

FAST-FORWARD: On Wednesday, Biden apparently came armed with no such escape tool. He offered to extend his own press conference. Then he called on reporters he knew were from conservative media organizations. “Fire away,” Biden said. “Come on.”

One reporter asked why he was trying to “pull the country so far to the left.” Another asked about a poll that showed people doubted Biden was “mentally fit.” Biden laughed and replied: “Well, I’ll let you all make the judgment whether they’re correct.”

Martin Schram
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)