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The Presidential Press Conference: A Study in Institutionalization

Author(s): Elmer E. Cornwell, Jr.


Source: Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Nov., 1960), pp. 370-389
Published by: Midwest Political Science Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2108872
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ELMER E. CORNWELL, JR.
BrowrnUniversity

ThePresidentialPressConference:
A Studyin Institutionalization

PERHAPS THE and importantquestionraisedby


MOST fascinating
the 1960 electionis not the partyof the successfulcandidate,but
ratherthe impacthe will have on the futureshape of the Presi-
dency. Will he continueMr. Eisenhower'spolicy of makingover
the officeinto a staffoperationin which the variouspresidential
roles are formalizedin the hands of an expandingWhite House
bureaucracy,or will he attemptto rethinkand reshapethe rela-
tionshipof the Presidentas human being to the presidencyas
institution?
That thepresidencyhas in factbecomean institutionis obvious.
ClintonRossiterprefaceda discussionof the establishment of the
Executive Officein 1939 with the assertion:" The most notable
development in thePresidencyin recentyearsis a changein struc-
ture rather than a growth in power. . . . Inseparable from the
modernPresidency,indeedessentialto its effectiveoperation,is a
wholetrainof officers
and officesthatservehimas eyes,ears,arms,
mouth,and brain."1 RichardNeustadt,anotherclose studentof
theofficewithfirsthandexperiencein theWhite House, has noted
the extentto which the processof puttingtogetherthe legislative
programof the President,so characteristically informalunder
FDR, became structuredand formalizedunder his successors.2
Lester Seligmanhas examinedthe processwherebythe Roosevelt
brain trustbecame transmuted, as it were, into the Council of
EconomicAdvisers.3Federalpersonnelstatistics creditthe" Office

'The AmericanPresidency(New York: Harcourt,Brace, 1956),p. 97.


2 "
Presidencyand Legislation Planningthe President'sProgram,"American
PolticalScience Review,XLIX (December,1955),980.
3"PresidentialLeadership:The Inner Circle and Institutionalization,"
Journal
370
THE PRESIDENTIAL
PRESSCONFERENCE 371

of thePresident" withfrom45 to 50 employeesbetween1932and


1937. By 1948 the "'White House Office" employed 210 and
in 1958, 394.4
EARLYPRACTICES
Presidentialpressrelations,and the presidential
pressconference
in particular,
havenotescapedthistrendtowardinstitutionalization.
Formalpressconferences beganunderWoodrow Wilson,butwere
allowed to lapse by theirunenthusiastic originator.5Harding re-
vivedthem,and gave themthe charactertheyretaineduntil1933-
thewrittenquestionand the" White House spokesman" to disguise
the source of news thus obtained. To Calvin Coolidge probably
belongsthe creditfor entrenching themfirmlyin White House
precedent. He held conferencesregularlytwice a week during
virtuallyall of the time he was in office.6Hoover began aus-
piciously,but themountingcaresand frustrations of the depression
caused himto see the reportersless and less frequently, and with
increasinglyunhappyresults.

FDR AND THE PRESS CONFERENCE

So much for the firstidentifiableperiod in the evolutionof


the presidentialpress conference. It is the second and contem-
poraryperiod with which thispaper is mainlyconcerned. This
new era opened with FranklinRoosevelt'sfirstmeetingwith the
press,March 8, 1933. In his initialremarkshe spelled out the
heart of the change he proposed to make: ". . . I think we shall
discontinuethe practiceof compellingthe submitting
of questions
of Politics,XVIII (August,1956),410. See also his "Developmentsin the Presi-
dencyand theConceptionof PoliticalLeadership,"AmericanSociologicalReview,
XX (December,1955),706.
' Data on federalcivilian employment
fromvarious issues of the Statistical
Abstractof the UnitedStates.
' See JamesE. Pollard,The
Presidentsand the Press (New York: Macmillan,
1947), for a generalaccount of the developmentof presidentialpress relations
down to the Truman administration; and also articlesby the same authorin
variousissuesof the Journalism Quarterlyon aspectsof subsequentpresidential
dealingswiththe press.
' See the present writer's "
Coolidge and PresidentialLeadership,"Public
Opinion Quarterly, XXI (Summer,1957), 265.
372 ELMER E. CORNWELL,JR.

in writing before the conference in order to get an alnswver."


He wenton to discussthegroundrules,whichallowed attribution
to the presidentbut includedthe long establishedprohibitionon
directquotationwithoutspecificauthorization,plus two new cate-
gories," backgroundmaterial" and " offthe record." The first
of these meant ". . . material which can be used by all of you on
your own authorityand responsibility,
not to be attributed
to the
White House . . . ," and the second, ". . . confidentialinformation
which is given only to thosewho attendthe conference."7
FDR herewas consciouslyfashioning a new tool of presidential
leadership,subtlycompoundedof precedentand his own unique
skillsand personality.That the processwas consciousand well
groundedon an awarenessof past trendsand how they could be
turnedto account-isamplydemonstrated.In a note appendedto
the transcriptof this firstconferenceRoosevelt explained the
changeshe made and the reasonstherefor,and quoted at length
an articleby TheodoreJoslin(formerHoover secretary)discussing
the historyof the pressconferenceand the extraordinary success
of the Roosevelt innovations.8In many subsequentpress con-
ferencetranscriptsthe Presidentdisplayedboth his masteryof
techniqueand awarenessof the publicitypotentialinherentin his
meetingswiththe correspondents.9
In reading both the transcriptsand commentrelatingto the
FDR press conferenceone is particularlystruckwith the extent
to which the Presidenthad graspedthe essentialnature of the
relationshipbetween press and White House. In the firstplace
it is an alliancenecessaryto both parties. The Presidentneeds it
because recent American traditionmakes provisionneitherfor
" party" or " administration" newspaperorgansnor forany overt
propagandamachineryor mode of directaccess to thepublic save
throughthecommercialmedia. And thepress,impelledby motives
commercialas well as professional, needs materialto feed a news-
'FranklinD. Roosevelt,PublicPapersand Addresses,Vol. II: The Year of Crisis
(New York: RandomHouse, 1938), pp. 30-31.
8 Ibid.,pp. 40-45.
'Save fortheexcerptspublishedin thePublic Paperstheseare availableonlyat
the FranklinD. RooseveltLibrary,Hyde Park,and were consultedthere.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 373

hungrypublicand findspresidential newsas potentially colorful


and significant as any. In the secondplace,thereis a built-in
antagonism betweenPresident and presswhichstemsonlyin part
frompartisan bias. Botheditorsandtheworking pressareimpelled
by thenatureof theircallingto ferret out and printall thenews
as soon as it comesto hand,emphasizing frictions,
personality
clashes,etc. The WhiteHouse,although it wantsto publicizethe
President'sgoalsandprograms, mustcontrolthetiming of revela-
tionsand oftenconcealas wellas reveal.Each,in short,must,in
thenatureof things, attempt to use thepressconference forits
ownpurposes-purposes thatcannothelpbutbe mutually exclusive
at times.'0
The Roosevelttechnique was admirably adaptedto theseneeds
and problems.Basic to his approachwas his oftennotedability
to holdtheinitiative duringhisinterviews withthereporters, and
steertheexchanges in a predetermineddirection.He alwayshad
controlof thesituation, controlwhichhe usedforthemostpart
to achievesomekindof balancebetweenpublicizing theadminis-
trationandmeeting theneedsofthereporters forinformation and
" a story." In addition,he held press conferencestwice a week,
and held themeven when in Warm Springs,Hyde Park,or on a
trip. This meanta rathermeagernews outputat someconferences,
but also meantthatmost big storieseitherbroke in a presscon-
ferenceor so near one thatthe Presidenthimselfwould be avail-
able a day or two laterfor comment.The senseof continuityof
contactwith the Chief Executivein personwhich was thuscon-
veyedto thepublicwas unquestionably important in portrayingthe
Presidentas focusand primesource of administration activity.
Much could also be said about the more immediateaspectsof
the relationsbetweenFDR and the workingpress. He cultivated
an informalcomradeshipparticularlywith the White House
regulars,callinga large numberof reportersby theirfirstnames.
This was facilitatedby the pressconferencelocale, whichwas the
l On thispoint,and
fora veryusefulgeneraldiscussionof FDR's pressrelations,
see RaymondP. Brandt," The President'sPress Conference," SurveyGraphic,28
(July,1939),446-49.This is one of manysimilararticlesin the popularjournals
whichcombinedescription withmoreor less usefulanalysisand evaluation.
374 ELMER E. CORNWELL, JR.

President'sown officeuntilthe shiftto the Indian Treaty Room


in 1950. The regularswere always firstto enterat the appointed
hour,and spenta few minutesin lightbanterwith the President
as they stood near his desk waiting for the signal that all the
reporterswere in and the doors had been shut. Afterthe con-
ference,thosenotin a rushto filestoriescould tarryfora personal
word with Mr. Roosevelt. Newcomers to the conferenceswere
always introducedfor a personalhandshake. Outside the con-
ferenceformatitself,therewere the famous (thoughat the time
completelyoffthe record) Sundaynightsuppersforthe regulars,
selectedcolumnists,and others.-1
The conferencegroundrules themselvessuggestthe natureof
the President-reporter relationshipduringthe Rooseveltadminis-
tration.The " offtherecord" and " background" categorieswere
calculatedto servethe interests of both parties. The firstenabled
thePresidentto do a good manythingshe could not have done if
everything he said were on therecord. He could spikerumorsby
revealingthe facts in confidence. He could preventreporters
from unknowinglyblunderinginto an area of delicate foreign
negotiation,for example,by explainingto theirsatisfaction why
care should be exercised. The reporterscould and did use the
device to seek information or to check leads.12Probably most
importantof all, the two categoriesenabledthe Presidentto pre-
pare the groundfor a policy which was in preparationbut which
he was not yet readyto announce. This at timeswas the familiar
" trialballoon" device,but more oftenwas a matterof briefing
thereporters on histhinkingand themotivesbehindan anticipated
move, thus enablingthem to write more knowledgeablyonce
formalannouncementwas made. A good exampleof the latter,
whichat thesametimeprovidesa glimpseof thePresident'sprocess
" See RaymondClapper," Why
ReportersLike Roosevelt,"Review of Reviews,
89 (June, 1934), 16; and Walter Davenport," The Presidentand the Press,"
Collier's,115 (January27, 1945),47.
12 For example:" TalkingaboutCuba, thereare quite a few
interesting
develop-
mentsdown there recentlyand, just for information and off the record, has
anythingbeen done by you or SumnerWelles with respectto the Machado
regime?" The Presidentrepliedthattherewas no storythere. (Press conference
transcript,June9, 1933,RooseveltLibrary.)
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 37 5

of decidingin whatcategoryto placehis comments,


camefrom
the pressconferenceof November7, 1934. (Recall thatthe 1935
sessionof Congresssaw the shiftin policy toward massivework
reliefprograms.)
Q. Mr.President, do you expectanychangeinthereliefpolicybefore
Congressmeets?
THE PRESIDENT. No. Well, thereI can give you something but we
will haveto makeit offthe record.I have to keep it offthe
recordbecause we don't know what the thingis going to
developinto.
Q. Do you meanofftherecordor justbackground?
THE PRESIDENT. Absolutelyoffthe recordso you will know what
we arethinking about.It hasnotgotto thestageofbackground.
. . . [Here followsa discussion, in partusingconcreteHyde
Park examples,of the effectof dole reliefon the mindsof
recipients,etc]. The idea is to see whether,withnextyear's
reliefmoneythatis to be dividedup betweenthreeorganiza-
tions,really,theCCC camps,publicworksand HarryHopkins,
to see whetherwe cannotuse all of thatexpenditure to take
peopleoffwhatwe call homerelief,thatis cash and grocery
orders,and put themon usefulworkinstead.
Now, thatis thethingwe aregropingforand we areonlyin
thegropingstage.'8
This off-the-recorddiscussionoccupied some threepages of the
transcript.Some idea of the role off-the-recordand background
materialplayedcanbe gainedfroman approximate tabulationofthe
numberof pages of pressconferencetranscript takenup by these
two categoriesduringa sampleperiod. From November 1, 1934,
to October 31, 1935, the period embracingthe 1935 sessionof
Congressplus two monthsof administration preparationbefore
Congressconvened,'4Mr. Roosevelt'sconferencetranscripts occu-
pied some 736 typed,double-spacedpages. Of those,roughly131
were devotedto exchangesruledoffthe recordor forbackground
use only,or approximately18% of thetotal. (There were at least
a fewlinesin one categoryor theotherin 40 of the 92 conferences

s Transcript,
RooseveltLibrary.
Note thatthissame periodis used below for furtherstatistical
analysis.
376 ELMER E. CORNWELL,JR.

held duringthese twelve months.) Significantly, 54 of the 131


came betweenNovember 1 and January3 when Congressmet,
and two-thirds of the remainingpages were accountedforby the
annual budget seminarand a lengthy"background" press con-
ferenceat thetimeof theSchechterdecisioninvalidatingtheNRA.
In otherwords,the figuresunderscorethe use made of off-the-
record and backgroundstatementsto prepare the reportersin
advance for legislativeproposals.
In summary,thepressconferenceprovidedFDR withan oppor-
tunityfor contact with the workingpress and with a platform
fromwhich he could addressthe countrywith more flexibility
and regularitythan in a formalmessageor even a firesidechat.
It functionedin a shadow zone which,althoughmore " public"
thanin the past when the " White House spokesman" stood be-
tweenPresidentand newspaperreaders,yet was less in the public
domain by far than the Eisenhower press conferencewith its
publishedtranscripts.It could be arguedthatMr. Roosevelthad
strucka happymediumbetweenthe two, thoughas an examina-
tionof the Trumanand Eisenhowerexperiencewill show,his was
not the only formator approachpossible.

THE PRESS CONFERENCEUNDER TRUMAN


Harry Truman succeeded to the presidencyunder circumstances
which caused himto rely on patternsset by his predecessor.He
held his firstpressconferenceon April 17, 1945, five days after
takingoffice.The only immediatelyobvious difference was the
fact that the new Presidentstood to addressthe reportersand
receivetheirquestions.Mr. Roosevelthad of necessityremained
seated. OtherwiseMr. Truman said he would follow the con-
ferencerules which FDR had established,though it was soon
evidentthattheresemblancebetweenthepracticesof thetwo men
was only superficial.15
Analysisof the Trumaninnovationscan be dividedforconven-
ience into two categories-thesomewhatsubtlechangesstemming
1"This and subsequentmaterialdran from PresidentTruman's press con-
ferencesderivesfroma studyof the fileof transcripts
at the Harry S. Truman
Library,Independence,
Missouri.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 377

fromdifferences thetwomeninpersonality
between andtechnique,
and the formalchangesin pressconferenceformatand apparatus.
Note, however,thatnothingwas done eitherinitiallyor later to
shiftin any major way the balance as betweenthe privateand
public aspects of the President-reporter encounters.There was,
thatis to say, no seriousthoughtof a returnto writtenquestions
or the " White House spokesman" of the earlierera. Nor was
theremorethana minorshiftin the directionof puttingmore of
the processinto the public record. The changeswhich did come
were withinthispre-existing framework.
There seemsno doubt thatthe interpersonal relationsbetween
the new Presidentand the reporterswere informaland friendly.
There was the same sort of banteraround the President'sdesk
beforetheconferences began,thesameinclinationto call reporters
by theirfirstnames,and to give themback as good as theysent
whenthe questioninggot pointed. In fact,if one were to charac-
terizetheTrumanconferences, the friendlyand good naturedbut
unmistakable fencingwould standout. The Presidenttook delight
in his abilityto fieldthe balls thrownto him. This competitive
aspect of the encounterswas rathermore in evidenceafter1945
thanit had been before,and efforts to take the reportersinto the
President'sconfidenceor to structurethe net conferenceoutput
were lessin evidence. The repliesto questionswere briefer,more
likelyto be of a yes or no type,and the reporterseekingWhite
House intentor motivewas usuallyreferredto the textof a pre-
vious messageratherthangiven an extemporaneous explanation."6
Mr. Truman made virtuallyno use of the off-the-record or
backgroundcategoriesin the Rooseveltianmanner.This was less
significantin itselfthanthe generallack of detailedpolicy exposi-
tionflowingfromtheconferences.As one observernoted," What
Mr. Trumanhas neverbeen able to do is use the pressconference
to explain, elaborate,and interpret,to give broad outlines of
Administration policy in languagethe people can understand." 17

16 These impressionsstem not only from a carefulreadingof most of the


Truman conferencetranscripts,but fromlisteningto recordingsof some of the
sessionswhich,of course,capturedtoneof voice,inflection,
and the like.
17
" The AtlanticReporton Washington,"Atlantic,185 (February,1950),6-7.
378 ELMER E. CORNWELL, JR.

In the TrumanLibraryfilesthereis a letterfroman experienced


Washingtonreporterto Press SecretaryCharles Ross in which
thesamepointis made. If thePresidentwould elaborate
essentially
somewhatmore in answeringquestions,particularlyfollowup
questionson the samesubject,he would conveya clearerimpres-
sionof hispolicyand of histhinking,thewritersaid in substance.18
In theforeignpolicyareaPresidentTrumandid developa form
of off-the-recordexpositionwhichwas well suitedto the problem
of gainingpublicsupportforhisstriking innovations.In theperiod
from1945 to 1948 the chiefpreoccupationof the administration
was the initiationof programsof foreignaid. These were an
unprecedenteddeparturein American peacetimeforeignpolicy
and hence representeda major testof presidentialopinionleader-
ship. Though makinglittleuse of his regularpress conferences
to discussforeignpolicyat length,Mr. Trumandid,on sixseparate
occasions,expoundadministration foreignpolicy plansin detailat
off-the-recordspecial pressconferencesarrangedfor variouspro-
fessionalgroupsinvolvedin news dissemination. The firstof these
was on April 17, 1947. The group involvedwas the Society of
Newspaper Editors,and theirmeetingwith the Presidentcame
about five weeks afterthe Truman Doctrine messagehad been
deliveredbeforeCongress.M\r.Truman openedthe meetingwith
a long informaldiscussionof administrationpolicy which he pre-
faced with an expressionof appreciation:" I thinkthe press has
given the countrya completelyclear and fair statementof that
situation[aid to Greece and Turkey], and the necessityfor it.
I mightsay a word or two to you, offthe recordif I may, as to
the developmentof that situation." Toward the end of his talk
he said: ". . . We must continue that bipartisanforeign policy for
the welfareof ourselvesand the welfareof the world, because
our own welfareis mixed up in the welfareof the world as a
whole.... And you gentlemencan help us prepareto meetthat
situation. . . . Now I have been exceedingly frank with you
gentlemenin statingthe situation.I thoughtyou were entitledto
know what is in the mindof your President."
18
LetterfromJimWright,BuffaloEveningNews, April 10, 1947. (Truman
Library).
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 379

Bothin flavorandin theintentbehindthecarefulpresentation,


thislanguagecomparescloselywith FDR's off-the-record discus-
sions. Trumanheldothersimilarmeetings withradionewsanalysts,
with the National Conferenceof Editorial Writers,and with
variousgroupsof editorsof businessand trade papersas well as
newspapers.He toldtheNationalConferenceof EditorialWriters,
" I want to bringthathometo you so thatwhen you writeyour
editorials,
tryand get all the factsin relationto the foreignpolicy
beforeyou makeup yourmind.... You have a tremendous influ-
ence on the welfareof this country." 19 At all these gatherings
he presentedthe administration's case carefullyand at length.
He maywell havefeltthaton unprecedented issuesliketheTruman
Doctrine and Marshallaid, which were largely divorced from
domesticcontroversyand requiredbipartisansupport,convinced
editors,editorialwritersand columnistswould carrymoreweight
thanreporters, howevercarefullybriefed. He may also have felt
thattheregularpressconferencewas too largeand amorphous,and
surroundedwith too much of a hit-and-run atmosphere, for dis-
cussion of such intricateissues. However, he used neitherthis
device nor the regularnews gatheringsto advance his domestic
program,as Mr. Roosevelthad done.
Turningto the mechanicsof the conferenceunderthe Truman
regime,the new Presidentsoon decided to meet the press once
ratherthantwice a week. It was suggestedthatin the Roosevelt
era the conferencecame too often always to be productiveof
significant
news. Yet themerefactof frequentface to face contact
betweenpressand Presidentis probablyimportantin itself.The
Truman innovationreduced thisby half,and by the same token
reduced the public's vicariouscontactwith the Chief Executive.
The expandingrange and complexityof presidentialtasks,par-
alleledby thegrowthof theWhite House staffand the delegation
of executiveresponsibility,mean that the image of the President
himselfas focus of ultimateresponsibility and source of initiative
needs to be maintainedwith special care. Perhaps retentionof
19 The specific
dateswere May 13,September30,and October17,1947,April23,
1948,and April 22, 1949. The quotationis fromthe transcriptof October 17,
1947.
380 ELMER E. CORNWELL,
JR.

twice-weeklymeetingswiththe reporterswould have contributed


to thisend.
One resultof the once a week conferencesystemwas to focus
added attentionon each conference, subtlymakingof each a more
formalencounterthat was planned for more carefullyon both
sides.20Thus the processof institutionalizationbegan. The next
stepmayhavebegunwitha letterfromcolumnistDavid Lawrence
to the Presidentin which he suggestedthat it would be helpful
to change the location of the pressconferencesto a room more
suitablethan the President'soffice,such as the auditoriumin the
Old State DepartmentBuilding,as a temporaryexpedient.The
writeralso mentionedthata mechanicalrecordingdevice of some
kind mightbe used so that transcriptscould be made available
more rapidlyto the reportersto check theirown notes. At the
time,the stenographicrecordtook some hoursto transcribe.This
letterwas writtenin February,1950.21 Soon thereafter the Presi-
dentopenedhispressconferenceby sayingthathe had been trying
to work out some alternativearrangementto ". . . make it more
convenientat thesepressconferences."He continued," I would
like to find a place to hold these press conferenceswhere the
acousticsare good and whereeverybodywould have a fairchance
to hearthe questionsand to recognizethe one who asksthe ques-
tion,and also to hear the answerplainly." 22

On April 27, 1950, the firstconferencewas held in Room 474


of theOld StateDepartmentBuilding(the so-calledIndianTreaty
Room). Pursuantto the pointthe Presidentmade in the remarks
quotedabove,reporters were now supposedto identifythemselves
by nameand affiliation beforeposingtheirquestions.Microphones
were of coursenecessaryin thelargerroom,firstforthe President
20 It seemsclear thatthe "
seminar" duringwhichstaffmembers
pre-conference
helpedthePresidentanticipatequestionsand evaluatepossibleanswersbegan on a
regularbasiswtihMr. Truman. See JohnHersey," The Wayward Press,"New
Yorker,26 (December16,1950),78, foran accountof the elaboratestaffprepara-
tionsbeforeone particularpressconference;and AnthonyLeviero,"Press and
President:No Holds Barred,"New York TimesMagazine,August21, 1949,p. 10,
for preparations made both by the Presidentand the reporters.
21 February 17, 1950,TrumanLibrary.
22 Conference transcriptof thatdate,TrumanLibrary.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 381

alone,and laterothersaroundtheroomto assistreporters in making


themselves heard. Sometimein the late Fall of 1950 or aroundthe
firstof the year, Joseph Short, Mr. Truman's press secretary,
decided that a recordingof the President'sreplieswould be an
added check on accuracy. At firsthe used an ordinaryofficedic-
tatingmachine,but latertheArmySignalCorpspersonnelattached
to the White House set up more elaborateequipment. In May,
1951, the Presidentauthorizeddirect quotation of some of his
remarksin a conference(as had been done fromtimeto timein
thepast), and forthefirsttimeagreedto thereleaseof the portion
of the recordingcontainingtheseremarksfor radio broadcast. It
was this move that promptedthe installationof more elaborate
recordingapparatus,sincethe dictatingmachinedid not reproduce
properlyon the air.23
All of thesechangesseem,individually,of minorconsequence.
Nevertheless,it is evidentthattheircumulativeimpactwas con-
siderable. By the time PresidentTruman left officethe press
conference,which under PresidentRoosevelt had been a highly
informal-almostcasual-affair,mirroringa unique presidential
personality,had become an institution.It was not an institution
divorcedfromthe preferences of thenew White House occupant,
to be sure,butneitherwas it anylongera uniquedeviceinseparable
fromthe man who used it. The auditoriumto which both Presi-
dentand pressrepairedforthispurposeand thispurposeonly,the
microphones, theelectronicrecording,therule thatreportersmust
identifythemselves-tosay nothingof the once a week schedule
and absenceof any discussionto be kept " in the family" as FDR
used to say-all thesehad combinedto changea casual encounter
into a formalinterpellation.This is not to implythatthe change
was eithergood or bad in termsof the usefulnessof the press
conferenceto thereportersor to thePresident.Rather,it was one
moreaspectof the acceleratingprocessof routinizingand institu-
tionalizingthe presidentialofficeas a whole.

23 See " On the


Record,"Newsweek,38 (July2, 1951),50; and W. H. Lawrence,
" Taping theTalk," New York TimesMagazine,October 14, 1951,p. 62.
382 ELMER E. CORNWELL,
JR.

EISENHOWER'S
PRESSRELATIONS
Needlessto say,important as theTrumaninnovations hadbeen,
therewasmuchroomleftforhissuccessor to makefurther changes
in thesamedirection.Initially therewas talkof thereluctance of
Mr.Eisenhower to holdanypressconferences. Thoughin theory
freeto do as he chose,it was perfectly clear thathe would
abandonthemat hisperil.2'In any event,he heldhisfirstpress
conference on February17, 1953,nearlya monthaftertaking
office.He displayed theneitherlack of knowledgeof pasttradi-
tionor an initialdesireto changetradition,forhe didmostof the
talkinginsteadof givingoverthetimeto questions fromthefloor,
and terminated theconference himself,notleavingthisup to the
seniorwireserviceman. Verysoon,however, he reverted to the
Trumanprecedents.
The mostsignificant thingabout the earlyEisenhowercon-
ferences was thefactthatby and largehe pickedup wherehis
predecessor leftoffso faras format,settingandgroundruleswere
concerned.True, nothingwas said aboutbackground and off-
the-record categories, and the conferencesbecameevenlessfre-
quent,butotherwise therulesremained thesameconcerning the
prohibition on directquotation.An apparentinnovation began
withEisenhower's firstconference in thatunofficialtranscripts
were publishedin the press,whichrenderedreporter questions
verbatimbut presidential repliesparaphrased.Since the last
Trumanconference had appearedin similarformin the New
YorkTimes,25 thiswasnota whollynewdeparture, butitdidindi-
catetheextent to whichfeeling abouttheconference hadchanged
sinceRooseveltdays. By 1953whathad beena privatemeeting
held ostensibly forthe benefitof reporters, and only indirectly
forthepublic,was now viewedas itselfpublicproperty.Para-
phrasesoonmergedinto" indirectdiscourse " as transcripts
con-
tinuedto appearregularly.In otherwords,the fewestpossible
changesweremadein therecording of thePresident'sanswers-
forthemostpartthesubstitution ofthethirdforthefirst person.
2' Note discussionof this pointby Douglass Cater in " The Presidentand the
Press,"Reporter,8 (April 28, 1953), 26.
2 New York Times, January 16, 1953.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 383

During 1954 the White House grantedpermissionfromtimeto


timefor directquotationof portionsof the President'sremarks,
and these were put in quotationmarksin the printedunofficial
transcripts,
with the remainderin indirectdiscourse. The New
York Times transcriptof the November 3, 1954, meetingwith
thepress,whichcame the day afterthemid-term elections,carried
the notation:" The White House authorizeddirectquotationof
the President'sremarksthroughout." 26 Early in 1955 the Times
recordeda landmarkin presidentialpressrelationsthus: " Under
six greatlights,televisionand newsreelcamerasrecordeda Presi-
dentialpressconferencetodayforthefirsttime. It was not a ' live'
affairon television;the filmwas held untilthe White House had
decided what part of it could be releasedto the public."27 That
day's transcriptcarriedthe partsthusreleasedin directquotation
and the relativelysmall proportionnot released in indirectdis-
course. Though greetedwithenthusiasm by thetelevisionindustry
among others,28 the TV broadcastingof the full releasedportion
did not last for many conferences.It apparentlytook too much
valuable time,and quite soon the practiceof screeningbriefex-
changesduring" news roundups" was adoptedinsteadand persists
to the present.
Not verylong afterthe firstfilmingof a pressconference,the
practicebecame generalof releasingthe transcriptin its entirety
for directquotation. Thus the processof formalization reacheda
new level-in fact could hardlygo fartherin thisdirectionunless
live televisionwere to be adopted, and this has in fact been
suggestedfromtime to time. The net resultof the trendsince
1950 has been to shiftthe balance betweenthe privateand public
aspectsof the conferencedrasticallyin the public direction.By
1955 the President-reporter encountershad become themselves
news ratherthan merelythe source of raw materialfor news, as
earlier. Not many papersprintthe transcripts in full,but many
2 Ibid.,November4, 1954.
27Ibid.,January20,1955.
28Note, for example,Jack Gould's column " Television in Review," which
appearedin the New York Times forJanuary20 withthe subhead: "President's
PressConferencean Exampleto Millionsof Democracyat Work."
384 ELMER E. CORNWELL,JR.

do printsummariesin additionto news storiesdrawn fromthe


conference,and mostsignificantly, the fact thata conferencehas
been held,the appearanceand conductof the Presidentat it, and
the like,have become " news" as much as the substantiverevela-
tions that emerge. Nothing at all remainsconfidentialbetween
pressand President,nor could it very easily,given full transcript
publication.
Even the friendlyinformalexchangeswith the White House
regularsbecame a thingof the past with the shiftto the Indian
Treaty Room. The Presidentwalks in afterthe reportershave
entere'dand been seated,and leaves as soon as the conferenceis
over. Thus Mr. Eisenhowerhas had neitherthe opportunities of
his predecessorsnor,it mustbe said, the inclination,so faras one
can tell,to get to know manyof the reporterson an informalor
personalbasis.29Very few does he call by name duringthe con-
ferences(usuallyresorting to " the man withthe glasses" and the
like) and almostneverdoes he use firstnames. For him,then,direct
contactswith the workingpresshave become almostcompletely
formalized,and the area of informalcontactwhich had been so
large under FDR and stillobtainedto an extentunder Truman
has since 1953 becomealmostexclusivelythefunctionof the press
secretary.In the past the presssecretarymet the reportersin his
officemuch more frequentlythan they met his boss, yet Mr.
Hagerty'srole as intermediaryand presidential spokesmanhas been
institutionalizedto a much greaterextentthan ever before.
Robert A. Rutland suggestsa measureof the extentthis has
takenplace when he notes the resultsof a check of the filesof
the Departmentof State Bulletin,which carriesimportantforeign
policy pronouncements.Roosevelt'spresssecretary,Steve Early,
was neverquoted in theyearsbetween1933 and 1945. A Truman
presssecretarywas only quoted once. But JimHagertyhas been
quoted frequently,both before and after the President'sheart
29 A
very usefulanalysisof PresidentEisenhower'srelationswith the working
pressis to be foundin Felix Belair,Jr.,"PresidentTries Out New Press Tech-
nique,"New York Times,July26, 1959,p. E7.
30 "cPresidentEisenhower and
His Press Secretary,"JournalismQuarterly,
XXXIV (Fall,1957),452.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 385

attack.30In previousadministrations,
in theorytherewas no official
White House spokesmanotherthanthePresidenthimself(save the
mythicalone of the Coolidge-Hooverera who was in realitythe
President). Now the press secretaryis cited as authorityfor a
statementor quoted verbatimalmostdaily in the press.

EVALUATION OF CHANGING PATTERNS

Thus have presidentialpressrelations,in the shortspace of a


decade,joined otherfunctionsof theChiefExecutiveas routinized
and formalizedpartsof a presidential institution-functions
which
beganas casualappurtenances and aidsto theconductof a one-man
office.There is of courseno assurancethatthe candidateelected
in 1960 will take over in all its detailthe apparatusthathe finds
on enteringthe White House. Practicallyspeaking,however,it
will requirea considerableeffortto freehimselffromthe burden
of precedent.Expectationshave been createdwhich he will have
to fulfillor riskdispleasurein quarterswherehe can hardlyafford
it. Furthermore, as the burdensof the officecontinueto mount,
renderingstaffever moreessential,any turningback of the clock
in pressrelationsor otherareasbecomeswell-nighimpossiblesince
mostof the innovationshave had the effectof cuttingthe amount
of timethePresidenthimselfhashad to spendin thatarea. Truman,
forexample,justifiedhis once a week conferenceschedulein terms
of pressof business,"1 and Eisenhowerhas held even fewerpress
meetings, with similarjustification.
One could speculateat lengthabout the wisdomor unwisdom
of the changesthathave refashionedthe news conferenceduring
the last two administrations. Hard evidence to demonstrateits
increaseor decreasein usefulnessas a presidentialforumis hard
to come by. One strawin the wind came in July,1959, in the
form of a much publicized off-the-record dinnerheld by Mr.
Eisenhowerfora selectgroupof thirteen reporters.32
" The reasons
"sHarryS. Truman,The Truman Memoirs,Vol. I: Year of Decisions,1945
(Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday,1955),p. 47.
2 This dinnerwas firstdiscussedpubliclyat Mr. Eisenhower'spressconference
of July22, 1959. See the New York Times of July23 for the transcriptof that
conferenceand accompanying articles.
386 ELMER E. CORNWELL, JR.

forusingtheguest-host relationship,"writesFelixBelair," to make


knownhis views aftersix and a halfyearsof arms-length dealing
withall newsmediacan be tracedto thePresident'srecentsuccesses
in hisrole Ps a leaderand the limitations
of the news conferenceas
a forumfor reasoneddiscussion."33 These limitations, according
to Belair,are size,brevity,pressureon all concerned,and the like.
More to the point,however,is the fact thatthe conferenceshave
steadilydevelopedin such a way as to rule out any franksemi-
private discussionwith the correspondentsat all. They have
increasingly,for the same reasons,found the Presidenttalking
directlyto the public and only incidentallyto the reporters.In
orderto " educate" the reporters, as FDR did in the conferences
themselves, Eisenhowerhad to resortto his privatedinner,which,
underprevailingconditions,was itselfmajornews! 34 Thus, what-
evermayhavebeengainedforthepressconferencesinceRoosevelt
days,somethingclearlyhas been lost at the same time.35
One questionabout the evolvingpressconference,and perhaps
the most importantquestion,can be answeredwith a degree of
conviction.What have been the trendssince 1933 as to its news
generatingpotential?Clearlythisquestionis the one which is of
ultimateimportance.The real significance of the pressconference
is as a major channelof communication-the only channelwhich
is both continuingand flexible-from the Presidentto the public.
33Belair, loc. cit.
34A muchless well publicizedvariationon Mr. Eisenhower'sdinnerwhich has
flourishedsince the war, and increasinglysince 1952,has been the " background
briefing" givenby a highofficial,usuallyaftera smallprivatedinnerfor a select
group of newsmen.Douglass Cater discussesthese backgroundbriefingsin his
book The FourthBranchof Government(Boston: Houghton,Mifflin, 1959),esp.
pp. 132-36. (Note also "WashingtonWire," New Republic,135 [December24,
1956],2). Undoubtedlytheseare parallelefforts at a lower level to circumvent
the formalizationthathas overtakenthe pressconferencedevice.
3 Two veryrecentdevelopments regzrdinginstitutionalization
deservemention.
Beginningwith a volumecovering1957,the NationalArchivesbegan publishing
annualvolumesof the Public Papers of the Presidentsincludingpressconference
transcripts,
thusgivingthema new kindof officialrecognitionand status.As of
the confercnceof April 23, 1958,the New York Times began numberingeach
questionand answerpair in the publishedtranscript.These numberswere then
used in news storiesto referto questionsand answersbeingdiscussed.Thus have
theitemsof pressconferencenews been routinizedand catalogued.
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 387

How, therefore, duringtheRoosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower period,


have sharp differences of personalityand the evolutiontoward
formalinstitutional statusaffectedthe amountof news Presidents
have been able to make throughthe news conference?
In order to gatherdata for at least a tentativeanswerto this
question,one year was selectedout of each of the threeadminis-
trationsfor study. In each case effortwas made to use a year
whichfoundthePresidenthighin electoralpopularityand actively
advancingthe major elementsof his (peacetime) program. For
FDR the year chosenwas 1935,forTruman 1949,and forEisen-
hower 1957. Since themostmeaningful " year" in thepresidential
annualcycle is not the calendaryear but twelvemonthsbeginning
well beforethe conveningof Congress,it was decided to take the
period fromNovember 1, 1934, throughOctober 31, 1935, for
Roosevelt, and comparableperiods for each of the other two
presidents.
The researchplan called for the analysisof the frontpage of
the New York Times for the day followingthe date of each of
the presidentialpress conferencesheld during these thirty-six
months. All news articlesfound which derivedin whole or in
significantpartfromthenews conferenceof thepreviousday were
measuredin column inches and the resultstabulated.36Space
occupied by multi-column headlineswas recordedand in a few
instances,wherefrontpage picturesappearedbearingan integral
relationshipto thepressconferencenews involved,theirspace was
also included. Continuedportionsof the storiesinside the paper
were not included. The rationalebehindthisplan of data collec-
tionwas thatthe Times' decisionson newsworthiness would offer
at least a rough measureof the amountof importantnews the
Presidenthad produced at his news conferenceduringthe year
selected. Presumably,if it had been possible to tabulate other
reputablenewspapers,in additionto the Times,the resultswould
articlesas derivedfrompressconferencesposed some problems
6 Identifying
duringthe Rooseveltyearsnot encountered laterwhen the pressconferenceitself
had become more fullypublic property.In 1934-35it was sometimeshard to
identifyarticlesbased on backgroundinformation, for example. However, this
did not happenenoughto distortthe resultsseriously.
388 ELMER E. CORNWELL, JR.

not have been altered substantially.The findingsobtained are


presentedin Table I.
TABLE I
FrontPage PressConferenceNews in the New York Times
FDR HST DDE
(1935) (1949) (1957)
1. Numberof pressconferences tabulated 92 44 26
2. Total numberof news articlesfromconferences 104 84 92
3. Numberof articleswithmuldi-column headline 21 7 3
4. Total columnincheson p. 1 fromconferences 1,5631 1,1561 1,132
5. Numberof pressconferences withno p. 1 story 24 1 0
6. Averagenumberof articlesper pressconference 1.13 1.91 3.54
7. Average columninchesper pressconference 17.0 26.2 43.5
8. Averagecolumninchesper article 15.0 13.8 12.3

The moststriking thingaboutthetabulatedresultsis thatdespite


the fact thatMr. Truman held less than half as many presscon-
ferencesas his predecessor,he stillmade nearlythree-quarters as
manycolumninchesof news; and thoughMr. Eisenhowerin turn
held only slightlymore than half as many press conferencesas
Mr. Truman,the columninchesproducedwere almostidentical.
Clearly the generationof news at press conferenceswas not
affectedmuch by the personalityand techniqueof the President,
by the formalization of the conferences,or by the sharpreduction
in theirfrequency.FDR does obviouslyhold a narrowlead, but
not as much of a lead by any meansas his very large numberof
conferences or obviousskillwould lead one to expect. The figures
in line 5 also substantiate
to a degreelaterassertionsthathis con-
ferencescame so frequentlythat they often produced meager
amountsof news.
The datain line 3 offerbettergroundforarguingthesuperiority
of the Roosevelttechniqueand format.Almostexactlya fifthof
the stories his conferencesproduced were thought important
enough to rate a two or threecolumn headline. This was true
of less thana tenthof Mr. Truman'snews stories,and even fewer
of Mr. Eisenhower's.What is probablyreflectedhereis the much
greaterlikelihoodthatbig news will break coincidentallywith a
conference-thatthe Presidenthimselfwill make the announce-
THE PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCE 389

ment-when he meetsthepresstwicea weekthanwhenhe meets


themonce a weekor lessoften.The lastthreelinesin thetable
are interesting becausethey documentan observable
primarily
changein newspaperhandlingof pressconference news. The
trendhasbeenawayfromtheone longsummary storyof Roose-
velt daysand in the directionof breakingup conference news
intoa seriesofseparate
stories
eachdealingwithonesubjectonly.
Note thatbetween1935and 1957thenumberof storiespercon-
ferenceincreasedsharplywhilecolumninchesperstorydeclined.
Line 7 showstheincreasingtendency forthePresidentto blanket
thefront pagethedayafterhisnewsconference. Thisis doubtless
relatedto theinfrequencyof pressmeetingsin recentyears,and
thenumberof questionsubjectsthatpileup, as it were,between
conferences. Throughoutthe periodscoveredthe Times front
pagecontained 160columninches.Mr.Eisenhower,
approximately
on theaverage,securedoverone quarterof thisspace.

SUMMARY

The presidential
pressconference,likeotheraspectsofthepresi-
dency,hasrapidlydeveloped inthelasttwodecadesfroma highly
informal,
semi-privateencounterbetweentheChiefExecutiveand
the workingpressintoa formalized publicinstitution.Among
otherchangesthuswroughthas been the diminution of the
" mediating
" roleperformed by thereporters and theincreasing
extentto whichthePresident now speaksdirectlyto thepublic
fromthisforum.Institutionalizationhasnotsubstantiallyreduced
theusefulnessof thedeviceto thePresident, at leastas measured
by frontpage newsin theNew York Timesthusgenerated.It
may have reducedits usefulness in termsof someof the more
subtlebenefits
to be reapedbythePresident fromintimate contact
withreporters. Finally,institutionalization
maywell have made
of thepressconference a communication vehiclesubstantially
less
dependent upon accidentalfactorsof personality thanhas ever
beenthecase in the past.37
3 Obviouslyit could be arguedthattelevisionhas increasedthe dependenceon
personalityin one sense. The pointis that,giventhe institutionalized
presscon-
ferenceof today,it is hardto imaginein the futurea sharpcontrastin technique
and approachlike thatproducedby changesin administration heretofore.