In other words, the president must struggle to be heard and, when he’s heard, to make sure that what people are hearing is what he’s trying to say. Some people—including presidential advisers—cynically call this “spin,” but the simple fact is that communicating a clear, consistent, digestible message is a difficult feat. So many diversions compete for citizens’ attention, and so many forces can distort the message, that communicating the president’s message is extraordinarily difficult. At the same time, it’s hugely important.
Some things make that job easier. White House officials often refer to the press corps covering the president as “the zoo.” They often view them as dangerous wild animals who might snap at any moment, who must be carefully caged and properly fed. The press corps gets its news through a regular diet of briefings in the White House press room, a crowded and somewhat dank space above what used to be the White House swimming pool, where John F. Kennedy swam laps to exercise his back. Reporters in the room have assigned seats. The briefings happen at regularly scheduled times, and the routine gives the White House a home-team advantage.
Television reporters have assigned spaces on the West Wing lawn. They seem to be standing alone on the lawn with the beautiful backdrop of the North Portico behind them, but the TV images disguise how tightly packed in they are. When the president travels, reporters and film crews are kept safely behind a rope line, and the president’s press secretary carefully doles out their perks, from scoops and leaks to private presidential interviews. The reporters who receive most favored status are those whom the president most prefers. The White House media team can carefully stage events to provide attractive backgrounds and good leads for news stories. The Rose Garden provides a great setting for bill signings, and few television backdrops are better than the Oval Office.
What reporters most want is a good story. What the White House most wants is for its story to get out. Skillful White House press secretaries use the former to get the latter.
All presidents know this and try this. Few have succeeded as well as Team Bush. The administration succeeded because it put a high premium on controlling not only the setting, but also the structure of discussions. For example, as counted by Martha Joynt Kumar, in his first two years as president, George W. Bush held substantially fewer press conferences than his immediate predecessors: W held 36 press conferences in his first 21 months, compared with 73 for Clinton and 61 for Bush 41.
When Bush does hold a press conference, his style is completely different from those of his predecessors. In the Reagan administration, reporters speculated that women who wore red suits were more likely to stand out from the crowd and get a presidential nod.
As explained by Francine Kiefer, during the Clinton years, some reporters tried a “bumblebee” approach, wearing a bright yellow pantsuit with black buttons, for instance, to attract attention. They believed that the first reporter standing had the best chance to ask the next question.
By contrast, Bush has staged his few press conferences with little advance warning. The strategy not only gave reporters no chance for a wardrobe switch, it also ensured that the White House could better control the flow of the questions. The president accepts no interruptions as reporters scramble to ask the next question. Bush and his team relentlessly work to ensure that the public hears their stories their way.
His staff have made fewer “senior administration officials” available for background briefings on the details of policy issues, and Bush has insisted that his aides and cabinet officials not develop back channels with reporters. In addition, reporters asking questions that senior officials considered “out of bounds” have complained that they’ve been frozen out of news briefings. For example, one reporter probing the behavior of the president’s daughters found herself on the sharp end of a White House warning and quickly learned not to press too hard—or risk losing access to important sources.
The administration’s openness, or lack of it, narrowed even more after September 11. Administration officials said they could not answer many questions because of national security concerns, but reporters complained that this was simply another smoke screen that the administration was exploiting for its own benefit.
At the center of the White House media team is Bush’s acerbic press secretary Ari Fleischer. John Roberts, senior CBS News White House correspondent, noted (half admiringly, half unhappily) that Fleischer has the uncanny ability to suck information out of a room. He doles out his daily press briefings with great finesse, sticking to his message and typically repeating the same phrase over and over again to make sure it’s the one reporters use. Reporters continually prod him to say something controversial—and newsworthy—but he seldom takes the bait.
To restore decorum in the often raucous press room—and to prevent difficult questions from building momentum—Fleischer calls on reporters row by row. Since many reporters are working on different stories, their questions might go in dozens of different directions. Fleischer’s message does not. CBS News correspondent Bill Plante, who has reported on the White House since 1980, complained that “in this administration, the controls on information are tighter than in any other one I have covered.”