Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Can It Be? A President I Can Understand!

I was watching President Barack Obama's news conference last night and I was struck with how well I understood every one of his answers. He spells out his thoughts so clearly, breaking his responses down into subsets and addressing each point thoroughly. By the end of the hour, I knew exactly what his goals were, what portions of the stimulus package were most important to him, and how he stood on the mess in the Middle East. I never before came away from a presidential news conference feeling so informed.

We are all familiar with George W. Bush's estrangement with the English language, but even a smooth talker like Bill Clinton always seemed to speak in generalities and political cliches. I was never completely sure about the details of any legislation he was pushing or whether he truly believed anything he said. He used a lot of words, but you were never quite sure whether he meant them, what they might really mean, or whether they were even true.

George H.W. Bush was more fond of the casual press conference, chatting with reporters on Air Force One or after some official event. Like his son, Bush 41 hemmed and hawed and struggled for words that were just beyond his tongue. It was bit like President Tarzan, "Drugs are bad! Tax cuts are good!" One strained to gleaned some kernel of insight from the syllabic jumble.

Even the man known as The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, never communciated much at a press conference, and what he did say was usually retracked by the press secretary shortly afterward ("What President Reagan meant to say was..."). Without the carefully crafted speeches of writers like Peggy Noonan, Reagan was lost. After a reporter asked a tough question, he would usually huff and grunt and say, "Well..." Then he would proceed to throw out factoids that he sort of remembered from a cabinet meeting, usually getting the details wrong and the numbers transposed. I know people liked Reagan. Hell, even I liked Reagan, bed-wetting liberal that I was back then. But whenever I watched one of his press conferences, I just felt like the U.S. was a Princess Cruise ship missing her Captain Stubing.

Prior to Reagan, I was too young to understand what anyone was saying at a news conference. I did watch Carter's news conferences, however. That's because he usually held them around 3:30 in the afternoon just after I got home from school. He would hold them in the briefing room where the press secretary usually speaks. It was always funny at the end of the conference watching Carter try to squirm out the door while a hungry mob of reporters would rush him and shout questions. He usually answered some, extending the conference by another 15 minutes or so, but it seemed so undignified. No wonder Reagan moved the venue to that room with the long hallway in the back where the president can escape without the ravenous horde on his heels.

As a college student, I loved watching old kinescopes of John F. Kennedy's press conferences and hoped that the current presidents could do as well. Although Obama doesn't have the same wit and charm, he certainly is compelling and he can speak in complete sentences.

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