In Praise of Pandemonium

During these times of crises, despite his reluctance to do so, President Bush should hold more frequent prime time news conferences to discuss the war. In more than two years in office he's held eight formal news conferences, only two in prime time.

The President is said to dislike the pandemonium of shouted questions. In his March 6 session with the press he made an effort to bring dignity and decorum to the prime time presidential news conference. Instead, he ended up giving the White House East Room the appearance of a funeral parlor and reporters the appearance of hired help.

There was no shouting of questions, no bobbing up and down for recognition. The White House banished the noise of free, give and take. Excitement was out, replaced by a new, formal format. The President chose reporters from a predetermined list of names placed on his lectern. One reporter present said the session appeared to have an "element of control."

Fifty-six million Americans saw reporters sitting frozen in their gilded East Room chairs waiting to hear if they made the list. The President was in a somber, subdued mood with none of the usual banter he displays in the Rose Garden. The reporters were as respectful as pallbearers. After all, the President was talking about going to war.

Over the years, White House press secretaries and the correspondents who cover the place have sought alternatives to the unbecoming, undignified practice of shouted questions, even going so far as to dress for success.

When I was Washington bureau chief at NBC News, our new White House correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, complained that President Reagan did not recognize her. I told Andrea that Mrs. Reagan seemed to favor red. Why not wear a red dress next time, I suggested. President Reagan spotted Andrea and called on her. At the next news conference—he held 31 in prime time—the red dress caper worked again. The President even called Andrea by name. At the third news conference, virtually all the women wore red. Many still do.

Years ago, an organized list was contemplated as an alternative to shouting, but that smacked of being scripted. Reporters deemed unfriendly could be eliminated from the list. Under the old Pandemonium Rule, an unfriendly reporter couldn't be stopped from yelling to get attention. The late White House reporter Sarah McClendon made shouting an art form.

In the end, we decided that decibels were the fairest way of getting the president's attention. Democracy is noisy. But President Bush doesn't like being yelled at and objects to reporters showboating in prime time. He has a reverence for the East Room, even though Abigail Adams once hung husband John's underwear there to dry. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer takes credit for making up the questioner list. The session did have a broad range of participants. Still, it looked rehearsed.

It has been said that the press conference is the only place where the American people can watch their President think on his feet. As such, it should remain a vital and, yes, noisy, exercise in democracy.