President Nixon’s availability to White House correspondents looks great, especially when compared to President Obama’s record. Who would have guessed today’s White House press corps would be so passive when stiffed by the President, who makes clear he feels them unworthy.
President Obama passed over the White House press corps once again, and instead appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and others to discuss the Benghazi consulate attack. Such dissing of accredited media during the Nixon administration would have been unthinkable. Mr. Obama has had but two White House televised press conferences thus far this year, with only 20 since assuming office. Compare that with President Nixon’s 37 televised Washington press conferences during his first four years in office.
We recall “Agronsky and Company” from days past – the “in” weekly news round-table on Post-Newsweek’s TV Channel 9. Said Martin Agronsky on Dec. 30, 1970. “As far as news conferences are concerned, Mr. Nixon is the most inaccessible President in the last 38 years” (Martin was wrong, and failed to mention that President Roosevelt excluded women from his news conferences.).
Mr. Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney has briefed the White House press corps only a couple of times from the White House podium over the past few months, unlike Ron Ziegler and Jerry Warren who held daily briefings in the Nixon White House press room. Also back then, those of us in the office of Mr. Nixon’s Communication Director Herb Klein, were in daily touch with local newspaper and radio/TV reporters throughout the country, as we coordinated the local media activities of White House, cabinet, and agency spokespersons. Following each of the President’s televised news conferences, we would telephone local media contacts for their input, which would go directly to the President.
Today, by having few televised Presidential news conferences with White House accredited correspondents, President Obama has missed out on local media outreach via these Washington-based news reporters, and their local viewers and readers. In the first rows at Mr. Nixon’s White House news conferences sat the senior White House correspondents: Helen Thomas of United Press International, Peter Lisagor of The Chicago Daily News, Ted Knapp of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, and others, including CBS News’ Dan Rather.
President Nixon faced up to them. Today, White House correspondents have thrown in the towel. They even voted not to accompany Mr. Obama to Los Angeles for his appearance on The Tonight Show, deciding to send a pool reporter to represent them instead.
What this seems to indicate is that the White House press corps isn’t what it was, and perhaps may never be. Generations from now, as scholars reflect on Mr. Nixon, they may note that Mr. Nixon was able to speak deftly at press conferences without notes with astonishing recall, from discipline acquired as a member of the debating team in college, and that his news conferences contained many treasures for future generations to contemplate.
Alvin Snyder was Deputy Special Assistant to President Nixon.