Anyone who tuned in on time for the president-elect’s first news conference yesterday and who happened to be watching it on a live feed was in for a wait. Those who, like me, hoped that punctuality might signal the creation of a wonderfully efficient administration were in for a disappointment since it was close to 3pm before the scheduled 2.30 briefing kicked off. Even so, the wait was worth watching if only to witness so many journalists fuss and fidget. Instead of being late, maybe Obama was off stage waiting for a signal that the press was ready.
First, Obama’s heavyweight team of economic advisers filed out. (Note to Rahm Emanuel: If you’re going to position yourself as Obama’s left hand man in the future and you want to avoid looking like an elf, make sure you’re not standing in front of Paul Volcker.)
Then Obama’s statement about the economy. Hot damn! This president is going to be serious. Is everyone ready?
Most of all, is the press ready?
Everyone assembled had hours to pick and carefully phrase their prepared question in the event that they might be lucky enough to fire it off. One such was the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Lynn Sweet. She managed to pack four questions into one and with this scattershot approach managed to solicit what in the eyes of our illustrious media must have been deemed the most valuable gleanings of the day. And as she pitched for the human interest angle, as well as asking about dogs and schools and reading material, she asked:
Have you spoke to any living ex-presidents?
Why specify “living”? you could hear Obama thinking. But whereas President Bush in a situation like this would have probably come out with a condescending quip designed to humiliate the questioner, Obama, while unable to stop himself from calling attention to the question’s clumsy phrasing, simply made light of it with his own somewhat clumsy joke:
In terms of speaking to former presidents, I have spoken to all of them that are living. Obviously, President Clinton. I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances.
Oh my god! The president-elect in his first news conference made a boo-boo. What does this portend for the next four years?
Hopefully, plenty of others — levity might be in short supply.
The release of a statement on a swift apology to Nancy Reagan seemed like an unnecessary campaign-mode piece of damage control. In this case, an apology could simply have been offered in private and Mrs Reagan at her discretion could have chosen whether to make the communication public.
More importantly, Obama needs to challenge the press. Rather than fastidiously trying to rectify every trivial mistake, he should make press access commensurate with the value extracted from his time. The better the quality of questioning, the longer the press conference.
If there are gaffes along the way, let’s just enjoy them. After all, the conviviality that distinguishes as social animals depends on our ability to playfully laugh at one another.
But while the seriousness and intelligence of our newly elected president are beyond dispute, what seems far less certain is whether the press corps has an interest and capacity to meet Obama on his own turf by asking intelligent questions.