Will White House press briefings return to what they used to be?

Will White House press briefings return to what they used to be?
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According to legend, modern relations between the press and the presidency took shape one day in the early 1900s when Theodore Roosevelt looked out his window and saw a group of newspapermen (and, yes, they were all men back then) huddled in the rain. He invited their “dean” William Price, a correspondent for the Washington Evening Star, to come inside and have a place to work in the executive mansion.

As White House historian Martha Joynt Kumar notes, that account is largely apocryphal, and daily “briefings” for the press probably began when War Secretary Daniel Lamont shared observations with reporters when Grover Cleveland was president before the turn of the century.

So the daily press briefing is at least 120 years old. Let us celebrate! Or should we? Every president back to George Washington has considered the press annoying and has grumbled about coverage of the White House. Why do they ignore the good things we are working on? Why do they focus on the negative speck and miss the log of great news we are harvesting? Who are the anonymous aides who provide juicy tidbits at the expense of “on the record” statements from spokespersons?

The White House press secretary usually bears the brunt of this presidential unhappiness, as did I when I worked for Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president Agency function is tied to how people feel about their job — that's bad news for USDA research 5 myths about William Barr MORE. Yet, President Clinton would stop meetings on occasion and ask for me to “get to the Oval” so that I could hear an important discussion within the administration. He would not call me to his office because he wanted me to opine, but rather because he knew, as he once put it, that “the press will be all over you on this and I want you to know what we are thinking.”

President Clinton understood, as every president until now understood, that the media, the free press, and the Fourth Estate are surrogates for the American people. Journalists are present at the White House every day to hold accountable those who are in power. They keep a watchful eye on the awesome strength of the executive branch in our system, adding to the checks and balances codified in the Constitution.

They are not, to put it directly, “the enemy of the people.” They are “the people,” with all the faults, diversity, contradictions, and disagreement that “we, the people” represent. A daily encounter between those who cover the White House and those who work in it is, to me, then, an indispensable ritual of our democracy. If the president is not available to answer questions, someone should be there to be accountable, to offer the White House perspective on news of the day, and to pass along information about what the president will be up to on his schedule.

I would wake up early every morning, scour the four newspapers left on my driveway, and rehearse the questions and answers I knew I would face later in the day as I walked the dogs, took a shower and hustled to the White House for the daily senior staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. By then, 90 percent of the briefing was in my head, and my colleagues and the president would work in the morning to refine and perfect the answers. I would devour every memo, briefing paper, classified information, and input from Cabinet secretaries and administration officials I could find.

The 1 p.m. briefing (and, yes, I usually was late) would run 30 minutes to 45 minutes and would be over when the senior correspondent, then Helen Thomas of UPI, looked around the room to see if anyone had additional questions. She would then give me a curt “thank you.” And we were done. Then I would go take a nap. Early in my tenure, I decided to give radio and television correspondents access to the briefing for their broadcasts. Until then, broadcasting the daily briefing was heavily restricted.

In retrospect, this was a mistake because the daily briefing was not supposed to be an alternative to daytime soap operas. It was merely an exchange, and reporters were supposed to use the information provided, test it against other sources, and then produce their reports. My briefings, especially when a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, came into the news, wound up on live television. To this day, I wish we could return some understanding that the daily briefing is not a “news event” put on by the White House. It is simply a raw ingredient for further reporting.

These observations are obviously intended to make the point that something is seriously out of whack now. A press secretary does not show up at the podium with obvious disdain for the reporters she confronts. The presidency is not imperial, and some measure of humility is required of the person at the podium. “The humble shall be exalted,” as scripture puts it, knowing that Sarah Sanders knows the Bible well.

In some ways, her position as White House press secretary is impossible. She has an audience of one that she needs to please, but she cannot serve him well without serving the interests of those in the press who protect our collective right to know. I am not sure this White House will ever understand that very fundamental truth, so the question will be whether we can return to a more amicable relationship between the press and the presidency when the next chief executive takes office.

However, we should understand that we pay some price for the current acrimony which poisons civil discourse in our country. Maybe it was a stretch for Jim Acosta of CNN to demand that Sanders disavow “the enemy of the people” label. But she can show that she understands how noxious that statement is by showing up each day at her briefing, willing to take the tough questions asked, giving the best answers she can, and staying there until the press dismisses her with a genuine “thank you.”

Mike McCurry served as White House press secretary to President Clinton from 1994 to 1998. He is now a communications consultant and a partner at Public Strategies Washington. He teaches as a distinguished professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and is a member of the board of directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates.