Last night, for the third straight time, President Obama failed to turn a press conference into the political equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen concert or whatever it is he's supposed to do to keep the Media Bobbleheads awake and doing their jobs and earning the six-figure salaries that apparently aren't incentive enough to make them care about boring topics like unemployment and pandemics and war and stuff.
From Media Matters, here's Chris Matthews talking to Lawrence O'Donnell after the conference:
Why, Lawrence, are these press conferences that this guy holds so frighteningly boring? Why does everybody act like they're in a sepulchre of some kind? They're so dutiful, it's boring beyond death. Have you noticed the way reporters behave in his presence? I've never seen anything like it.
O'Donnell did not reply, "Well, Chris, maybe it's because they realize times are tough, our problems are many and difficult, there are no easy or magic solutions, and the President has come on television not to entertain the press corps but to explain to the American people what he's trying to do to help fix things. Maybe they think that the appropriate way to act under those circumstances is like serious-minded adults and not like a bunch of college kids on Spring Break."
To be fair, I don't think Matthews wants the President to turn his press conferences into performance art pieces. I think he and a lot of his colleagues are just wishing that President Obama's press conferences were more like what they "remember" President Kennedy's were like, with the President getting off more witty lines and bantering with reporters and turning every answer into a short and easy to quote rhetorical gem, a super-condensed variation on JFK's inaugural address.
That's how I "remember" Kennedy's press conference too and if the President modeled himself on that "memory" of JFK, his press conferences would make for more exciting television.
The trouble with this is that Matthews and his crowd and I are remembering President Kennedy's press conferences all wrong. In my case, I'm not remembering them at all. I'm old, but I'm not that old. My first clear memory of John F. Kennedy's presidency is its end, and what I remember of that is the frightening grief of all the adults around me.
What I "remember" about President Kennedy is what I learned after he died, and much of that was pure myth or at least based on other people's memories that were so gilded that they were practically fiction. One of those myths is that JFK was absolutely brilliant at his press conferences. And he was. You've probably seen the same clips I've seen. Kennedy was witty, he was incredibly quick, he did banter with reporters and he seemed to enjoy the banter, and he could turn an answer into a short rhetorical gem.
But those clips are highlights chosen because they illustrate and reinforce the myth.
The truth is that President Kennedy was brilliant at his press conferences---in pretty much the same, boring, serious-minded adult way President Obama has been at his.
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, the main exhibit halls are designed to look like rooms in the Kennedy-era White House. One of those rooms is the press room. You go in, take a seat in one of the rows of folding chairs that face a monitor at the front of the room, and watch extended clips of some of Kennedy's press conferences, and what strikes you right away---what struck me when I was there three weeks ago, at any rate---is how thoughtful he was. You can see him taking the time to think through what he wants to say, see how his mind is working ahead of his mouth, how hard he is trying to give a serious and intelligent and intelligible answer to each question.
One of the results of this effort is that he says "uh" a lot. A lot.
He also doesn't look at the camera all that often or at the reporter whose question he's answering. He has a habit of looking down and away, at a spot at the right hand corner of his lectern, as if there's something there that shouldn't be there and he's about to brush it away. His right hand is always at work too. His finger circles and crosshatches the papers in front of him, as if he's doodling or writing note to himself and has forgotten he's not holding a pen.
It's bad television.
But it's great television.
Because he's not playing to an audience. He's not performing. He's working.
He clearly thinks of this---explaining what he and his administration were up to---as an important and serious part of his job. He wants his answers to be as thorough and accurate (if not necessarily as complete and forthcoming) as they can be. He isn't all that eloquent. But he is astonishingly articulate. He speaks in complete if not always elegant sentences, in well-organized paragraphs full of concrete facts and details and examples.
I forget who it was but one of the journalists who covered him said that at a time when many men Kennedy's age were desperately trying to appear younger than they were Kennedy was conspicuously trying to come across as older. Despite the emphasis his Presidential campaign and his rhetoric put on youth and "vigah," on the job Kennedy emphasized his maturity. You can see this in the press conferences. You can see him reining himself in, resisting the temptation to be glib and quickly correcting himself when he gives into the temptation. He speaks more slowly than he did when he was giving a speech. His voice is deeper. He is thoughtful, reflective, not humorless by a long shot but not constantly or even routinely jovial or even convivial.
In short, he's often dull.
But another thing that's striking is that he is often also plainly annoyed by some of the questions. Not because he thinks they're intrusive, but because he thinks they're trivial or besides the point or that they show signs that the reporters who asked them didn't really understand the issues or hadn't done their homework.
At that time, many of Murrow's Boys were still in the primes of their careers. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Newspapers were thriving and still drove political reporting. This was a golden age of journalism, at least according to my professors in college. And yet there's President Kennedy visibly irked by questions about process and personality---inside the Beltway stuff---as he's trying to lay-out policy and explain the issues for the American people.
I'm sitting there watching this and thinking, after Brad DeLong, Why oh why couldn't we have had a better press corps?
But I shouldn't have been thinking that. I knew better. Not very long before our visit to the museum I had read the chapters on Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, in Nothing to Fear, Adam Cohen's excellent history of FDR's first hundred days, and I had been struck by this passage:
Perkins also disliked how the press covered her professional life. She found Washington reporters more cynical and sensationalistic than the ones she had dealt with in New York. They were constantly asking her what her "angle" was, she complained. Perkins issued press releases that focused on important matters---"not what I think of John L. Lewis' latest outburst," she said. "That's not the news. The news is the government's inquiry into the wages and hours of the coal mining industry." Many of the press questions struck her as no-win. "They would say, 'Have you consulted Secretary Ickes about this?'" she said. "If you say 'No,' then Ickes is offended because they say, "Perkins refuses to consult with other Cabinet officers.' If you say 'Yes,' then they've got to know just what you said, what he said, why he said that, and they've got to go ask him what he said, what he meant."
According to Cohen, by almost any measure Perkins was Roosevelt's most successful and influential Cabinet secretary. She was the one most responsible for steering FDR on a more Progressive course and for keeping him on that course. She was one of only two Cabinet members who stayed in their job for the whole of FDR's Presidency. In short, she was the heroine of the New Deal.
And yet when it was all over, when Roosevelt was dead and Perkins had left the Department of Labor, the consensus among the press corps was that she'd been a failure.
The assessment was based purely on personal animosity. Reporters didn't like her because she didn't like them. Part of this was a failing on her part. She didn't see herself as a politician and didn't like having to act like one, even though her job was extremely political. She didn't enjoy being a public figure either, although she was better at acting like one than she was like acting like a politician. That is she could perform when she had to but she couldn't pretend. She thought of reporters as nuisances and didn't like having to explain her thinking or her actions to them. But what she really didn't like about reporters is that they didn't want her to explain either her thinking or her actions. They were, she thought, far more interested in having her explain herself.
As long as they were going to take up her time, she felt, they should take the time and the trouble to learn what the issues and the policies she was grappling with were. They should act like serious-minded grown-ups with important jobs to do.
Why oh why, she must have asked herself countless times, can't we have a better press corps?
One of my favorite parts of last night's press conference was when the President answered Jeff Zeleny's question about what things had surprised, enchanted, humbled, and troubled him the most over the course of the past hundred days, a question that wasn't as trivial as Zeleny's unfortunate choice of the word enchanted made it sound. It was a question about what it was like for Obama to be doing a job he's had to learn how to do as he does it. John McPhee has written whole books about other people doing just that. And the President took it seriously, even though he began his answer with some joking around.
You can read the whole transcript here. I'm just going to quote one part of his answer, where he deals with what has most humbled him:
Humbled by the -- humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life, and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line.
And so, you know, what you do is to -- is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say, and coax folks in the right direction.
This metaphor has been used before, but the ship of state is an ocean liner. It's not a speedboat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue, of how to bring about the changes that the American people need, is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, you may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say, "That was when we started getting serious about clean energy. That's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable. That's when we became serious about raising our standards in education."
Nothing profound in that or particularly original, and it's not a model of rhetorical elegance---although notice how much more eloquent he got as he went, as he gathered his thoughts; it's not a little rhetorical gem, but it holds together. What I like about his answer is its directness, and I mean that in the sense that it is fairly straight-forward, but also in that it is directed. It moves from Point A to Point B to Point C along the most direct route it can take. The thing is that the Media prefers it when the most direct route is a short cut and they don't understand that sometimes a thought has to travel a long way.
I don't know who taught it to me---somebody did, I rarely came up with these things on my own---but when I was teaching freshman comp and using poetry as one of the means to do it, I used to explain to my students who were skeptical of the connection between their essays and the poems of Robert Frost that the best definition of poetry I knew was Coleridge's, which I misquoted as "the fewest and best possible words in the best possible order." A pretty good definition of good prose right there, I'd say. But I'd always add that while the fewest and best words might mean five, it can also mean a thousand. There isn't a short cut for every thought.
Our press corps seems to believe that the fewest words are the best words, that every thought can follow a short cut, so it's no wonder then that when they're forced to travel a long way with an idea they keep piping up to ask, "Are we there yet?"