Friends, Foes, and Formality: The Presidential Press Conference

Dwight D. Eisenhower gives a speech conference at the White House before reporters.
President Eisenhower at his weekly conference with the nation’s press. He has vastly enlarged the scope of the chief executive’s communication with the people. (Ollie Atkins)

Never, in its long and difficult history, has the relationship between president and press been so rancorous. Major newspapers are repeatedly challenging President Trump on his facts, and the president has referred to the country’s leading news sources as “the enemy of the American people.”

We’ve come a long way from Revolutionary days, when Thomas Jefferson said he’d rather have a free press and no government than a government and no free press.

Presidents have always worked to gain the approval of the press, knowing how newspapers can build public support for policies. But for most of our history, presidents kept their distance from reporters. In the 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt began hosting informal press conferences, but he was selective of which reporters were invited, and he prohibited any reporter from quoting him. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all held formal press conferences but would only answer their choice of questions, which had to be submitted in advance.

Franklin Roosevelt broke with tradition by inviting reporters into his office and answering questions directly, setting the precedent that is still followed.

In “Mr. President!” Henry and Katherine Pringle offer a glimpse of a more decorous era in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House press room. It’s refreshing to read of the days when press and president could earn each other’s respect.

President Eisenhower had been dealing with the press since he was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. One of the chief reasons he was given that post was his ability to handle criticism and win support from his critics. Rarely did he show resentment or hostility toward people who fired questions at him. When he did speak his mind, he could show a dignified outrage, calling one question “the worst rot I have heard since I have been in this office.”

And to another, he gave what, for Ike, was a harsh critique: “I don’t think much of the question.”

Despite the occasional blunt response, Eisenhower appeared to respect the reporters, and they respected him. The current state of the White House press room is far different, and it seems unlikely that civility will make a reappearance anytime soon.

Click to read the article from the pages of the June 15, 1957 issue of the Post.


Obama Wins Nobel for Peace

For the third time in its history, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to an American president in office.

The committee chose President Obama from 205 candidates (172 individuals, 33 organizations) whose names had been submitted as part of the committee’s annual process.

The choice of Obama surprised most Americans, as well as the international reporters in Oslo, Norway, where the announcement was made.

Obama took office in January, only two weeks before the deadline for submitting nominees. In the short time that followed, it appears, the Nobel committee was impressed with his efforts to improve diplomacy and eliminate nuclear arsenals. They must have considered his efforts to build understanding between America and the Muslim world in a Cairo speech, and his United Nations speech urging greater global unity. They also would have known that this peace candidate was waging war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The committee did not have to name a winner. Between 1901 and the present, the committee has refused the prize in 19 years.

President Theodore Roosevelt won the Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering a peace between Russia and Japan, which was threatening to destabilize Asia and possibly the Russian government.

Woodrow Wilson won the prize in 1919 for his efforts to end World War I and build a global League of Nations, which he believed would prohibit future wars.

In 2002 the committee gave its award to ex-president Jimmy Carter for his efforts, both in and out of office, to support peace and help struggling nations. And in 2007, former vice president Al Gore was the recipient for his international efforts on behalf of the environment.

The list of past winners is long and includes many now-obscure names. Many, though, should be familiar to us: Albert Schweitzer, George C. Marshall, Dag Hammarskjöld, Linus Pauling, Martin Luther King Jr., the International Red Cross, Anwar Al-Sadat, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela.

But the Peace Prize doesn’t always come with a supply of peace. The choices in the past have been controversial. Many were angered when the committee gave the award to Henry Kissinger in 1973, and even more were disappointed that it was never given to Mahatma Gandhi.