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#AskCokie: A Look Back At Presidential Press Conferences


Today, President-elect Donald Trump is scheduled to hold his first press conference since winning the White House. And to look back at presidential press conferences of the past, we are joined - as we are most Wednesdays - by commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She's here for our regular segment Ask Cokie. This is where you get to send your questions to Cokie about how Washington and politics work. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's kick off with the President Eisenhower. Before we get going in our conversation, let's listen to him expressing some skepticism about the first ever televised presidential press conference. This was back in 1955.


DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Well, I see we're trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence.


ROBERTS: If only you knew, Ike.

MARTIN: So that's an appropriate way to kind of set up our conversation here. Let's hear from our first listener.

CHRISTOPHER MROZINSKI: Hello, this is Christopher Mrozinski. My question is, when were the first press conferences?

ROBERTS: So Woodrow Wilson is credited with having the first one. I did not cover it, I would like you to know, but...

MARTIN: (Laughter) For the record, yeah.

ROBERTS: And it was something of a mistake. He thought he was just going to meet and shake hands with the press corps, and all of a sudden he discovers that there are - according to The Washington Times - 100 newspaper men and one newspaper woman. I have tried to find her, Rachel, and I can't, I'm distressed to say. The truth is that presidents, of course, have been dealing with newspapers from the beginning. And my personal favorite story is one that may be apocryphal, which was that Anne Newport Royall - who was known as the grandmother of the muckrakers - couldn't get an interview with John Quincy Adams. And he went swimming in the Potomac every day without any clothes...


ROBERTS: ...And so she sat on his clothes. And when he came out, he was forced to submit to an interview. So wrap your mind around that mental image.

MARTIN: No, no. I'd rather not, no.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So let's get another question from another listener.

LIZ BURKEMPER: Hi, I'm Liz Burkemper from Troy, Mo. And my question is, is there any president that stands out as more accessible to the press or willing to answer more difficult questions? Thanks.

MARTIN: What do you think, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, for a long time these press conferences were off the record, so the presidents were quite accessible then. Particularly, Franklin Roosevelt would bring in members of the press a couple of times a week. But Ike's fear that the TV would be a disturbing influence was realized. They became much more formal, much less freewheeling. But, you know, even so, more freewheeling than today's press conferences, where you see President Obama calling on this person and then looking at his notes and saying, all right, the next question goes to so-and-so. It used to be that people jumped up and tried to get recognized. So, you know, it was a more genuine question and answer period.

But, like, Presidents use these things for their own purposes, not really to communicate with the American people. And now there's so many ways to do that around the press, of course. Trump's tweets are famous. Obama had his own White House videos. Or they use the press in a way that is more comfortable. President Obama loved his one-on-ones with individual members of the press.

MARTIN: So, of course, we know that the information that can come out of those press conferences is used for messaging and a variety of ways.


MARTIN: But what about policy, what kind of difference does it make? Has there been a time that you know of that a president has actually changed policy because of the questions asked at a press conference?

ROBERTS: Yes. I actually did my last interview with President Ford, and it was about the Constitution and the presidency. And he said that he pardoned President Nixon because he realized in his first press conference after he took office - where our own Nina Totenberg was then a member of the writing press and asked a question that was very tough - that he realized he'd never get away from Nixon questions if he didn't pardon the former president, and so he changed the policy to his detriment. I mean, that's really why he lost his re-election, but then was later hailed for it. I'm sure there have been other instances that I don't know about because it's a good way to gauge the intensity of how people feel about things even though there are lots of other ways to gauge public opinion.

MARTIN: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She'll be joining us Wednesdays to answer your questions. You can tweet us @morningedition with the hashtag #AskCokie. You can join the conversation on Snapchat. Snap us at NPR, or you can email us at askcokie@npr.org. Hey, Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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