President Reagan's last formal press conference was held in Washington on March 19, more than five months ago. That session was the first that he had conducted with the White House press corps in the four months after the Iran- contra scandal first exploded the previous November. Even before that, Reagan had held the fewest meetings with the press in modern presidential history. This is a curious record for a President known as the Great Communicator.
Perhaps, however, the President will have rested enough during his 24-day California vacation to meet with the White House press shortly after his return to Washington. He certainly should.
This suggestion is not designed merely to satisfy the thirst of reporters for an opportunity to grill the President in the limelight of a national television audience. Public discourse is indispensable to a healthy republic. There can be no real discourse without the participation of the President--the political, governmental and ceremonial leader of the nation. Stock speeches read by the President from a prompting device, about subjects of his own choosing, do not qualify.
What is puzzling about the media-savvy Reagan White House is that it does not seem to recognize the value of press conferences to the President himself. White House advisers, and perhaps even Nancy Reagan, may be gun-shy about Reagan's standing before the press without a prepared speech because of his propensity for committing gaffes and factual errors. They should also realize, however, that the more frequently the President meets with the press, the more adept he is likely to be at handling its questions and the fewer goofs he is likely to commit. Public confidence in the President's ability to handle issues on a spontaneous basis would be enhanced.
The question of the President's credibility and his lack of press conferences was raised during the past week in a column in the New York Times by William Safire, who was a speech writer for the Nixon Administration. Safire noted that the President's Los Angeles speech on East-West relations, which Safire said was the best that Reagan had made on the subject since 1982, had very little effect in this country. Safire added, "One reason for the weightlessness of his written words to the public is this: Mr. Reagan's unwillingness to hold regular news conferences betrays a weakness in his communication. OK, he can read a speech, but is this what he would say, ad lib, under pressure?"
In justifying only one press conference this year, White House officials used the excuse that the President wanted to avoid questions about the Iran-contra affair while Congress was still investigating. But Reagan could have refused to answer any questions relating to the scandal and fielded queries on other issues. There was plenty to discuss, so it is not likely that he and the reporters would have just stared silently at each other for 30 minutes on live national television.
Now that the hearings are over, it is time for the President to deal extemporaneously with a wide range of critical national issues, as the public has a right to expect. But the White House should not be content to hold just one session, which likely would be dominated by one or two of the most pressing subjects, and then go another five months insulated from the media and, effectively, from the American people.
The White House insists that Reagan remains an alert, vigorous President, actively involved in the decision-making process, and that he will be no lame-duck President during his final 16 months in office. The public is not likely to buy that line, however, if the President remains secluded in his office, unwilling to engage in regular give-and-take about issues that concern all Americans.