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Perry on Politics: Obama strikes out with press

Published by James M. Perry on .

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By James M. Perry

Jack Kennedy -- said Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post -- was "a breath of fresh air with his Hollywood good looks and impossibly attractive family....a glamorous figure, the youngest man ever elected to the office, the first Catholic president. He was also my friend."

Barack Obama, the first black president, was a breath of fresh air when he took office. He may not have been Hollywood handsome but he was attractive and had a lovely and lively family.

But as it turned out, when it came to the media Barack Obama was no Jack Kennedy. 

The first week he was in office Obama paid a surprise visit to the White House press room, presumably to say hello to the reporters and schmooze with them for a while. But he was taken aback, historian Jean Edward Smith has written, when reporters began asking him substantive questions. "I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here," he said.

My suspicion is that reporters covering earlier administrations would have been delighted to schmooze with their new president. Schmoozing allows reporters to get a better understanding of the man they're writing about every day.

Successful presidents usually handle the press with varying levels of skills. Jack Kennedy was good. Franklin Roosevelt was even better. At his first press conference -- in his first week in office -- FDR shook hands with each of the 125 reporters on hand and then schmoozed with them for the next 40 minutes. That informality, said Mr. Smith, "set a tone that endured for the next 12 years."

That informality is summed up beautifully in an AP photo showing Roosevelt and 12 reporters gathered around a table out of doors at Hyde Park eating hot dogs and chuckling at an FDR bon mot.

"We were antagonists." Richard Lee Strout, avid White House chronicler for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote, "but we liked each other and we laughed and had a perfect understanding of what each was trying to do and there was a certain degree of affection."

White House reporters these days seem to whine a lot; I'm pretty sure they don't laugh as much as they should (except, of course, at the vulgar, celebrity-filled dinners they put on every year).

FDR met with reporters surrounding his desk in the Oval Office once or twice a week, 337 times in his first four years. By the time he died in 1945, he had met with reporters 998 times.

Dwight Eisenhower, who probably had had enough of reporters in World War 2, held formal press conferences in the East Room, creating what critics contend was an adversarial relationship. But Kennedy did the same thing and charmed the press in much the same way Ike confused it. When the questioning got tough, Kennedy always got a laugh by calling on May Craig, the effervescent Washington correspondent for a group of newspapers in Maine. May Craig was spunky.

I sometimes wish we had a few just like her around today.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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