Is Bush hiding?

Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, doesn't mind the Bush ban on formal press conferences, as long as "we really get a crack at him."

Published March 30, 2001 10:45PM (EST)

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters not to expect President Bush to participate in full-scale, formal press conferences in the East Room. Instead, Bush would rather hold conferences in the more austere White House briefing room, have informal chats with reporters, take a few questions during photo ops and basically leave it at that.

"Bush won't conduct formal news conferences," declared the Associated Press following Fleischer's remarks. Is this an unwelcome return to the days of candidate Bush, who tried to keep a tight control on questions and answers with his friends in the press? Not really, says legendary reporter Helen Thomas, who is building on her more than 50 years in journalism as the current White House correspondent for Hearst newspapers. She's covered every president from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton, and she tells Salon that she believes Bush is going to do just fine.

President Bush's administration yesterday announced that he would cut back on regular press conferences ...

But he had one today.

What do you believe was behind the announcement, and what do you think the effects of this change will be?

I think it was misunderstood. Basically he said that he's not going to do the extravaganzas, the big events in the East Room. They're not planning to give a lot of advance notice, either. I suppose that they don't want to give [media outlets] a lot of time to get experts lined up, and they won't be in prime time.

But, in the end, I don't think it matters when or where the press conference is held, just so we really get a crack at him. I think coming into the press room like he did today is fine. If he wiped out news conferences, then I would be very unhappy. Presidents should be questioned -- must be questioned -- early and often. And press conferences are the only real chance Americans have to question their president.

How do you compare his performance with that of previous presidents you've covered?

I don't think he's doing badly. I think that he is gaining confidence, and he was better this time than he was before. He was more prepared today than he had been previously. He's going to do all right. Everyone has growing pains and there's no such thing as an instant president.

How do you think the public will react to the change?

I think Americans would like to have it in prime time, because most people can't watch them on television in the middle of the day. But I think that a president has a right to have them when he likes and where he likes. As long as he has them regularly.

We would love once a week, but that would be asking for the moon. Maybe once every two weeks, but at least once a month. Definitely once a month. But that will depend on how things go for him. Presidents love to have press conferences when things are going well, but when they are in trouble, they go underground. That's when you have to hunt for them.

Why do you think that the Bush administration prefers to have "informal chats" instead of formal press conferences?

I think that they have decided that these are the best style for him. He does much better when he's relaxed, and he's not so relaxed in press conferences. And it's not surprising; press conferences can be a big strain. They really have to be ready for anything -- every kind of question. To get prepared, they almost have to go into a tank. It's like getting ready for an oral Ph.D. exam.

Do you think that President Bush would have been more comfortable in an earlier era, before "gotcha" journalism, when reporters were seen as less adversarial?

I don't think we're very adversarial, even though it's our job to ask him difficult questions. I think that, so far, reporters have been going easy on him. As time goes on, that treatment may get a lot tougher.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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