November 7, 2007

Hillary: More Secretive Than Bush

While many in the media deride President Bush for his supposed reluctance to face reporters, Ruth Marcus points out that it could be worse -- and if the Democrats win, it likely will be. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have held hardly any press conferences during presidential campaigning, a time when candidates usually throw themselves in front of anyone with a microphone and a camera:

It's not as if this president has been Mr. Openness. But by some important measures, George W. Bush is more accessible to the reporters who cover him than are some of the leading candidates to succeed him -- most notably Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The candidates' reluctance to engage in regular give-and-take with reporters on the campaign trail does not bode well for how they would behave if ensconced in the White House, swaddled in protective layers of presidential prerogative.

Through the end of September, the president had given 25 news conferences this year and answered questions from reporters in 19 less-extensive sessions, according to statistics compiled by Towson University political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar.

By contrast, Clinton and Obama have only occasionally held the kind of "press avail" that for other candidates, and in previous years, has been a common, often daily, occurrence.

"Senator Clinton has had one real press availability out on the campaign trail since she announced," my Post colleague Dan Balz, who is not given to cheap shots, pointedly noted on "Meet the Press" in September. "Obama is very much the same way."

Marcus notes a couple of points, although the first she almost dismisses. Bush has actually done a good job in engaging reporters, especially this year. He has done more than one press conference every two weeks, and added in other smaller-scale engagements at a pace that puts him in front of the press every week. Considering that Bush has already won his last election, and that he has a war and a hostile Congress on his hands, that's not a bad track record.

Hillary's reluctance to engage comes as no surprise to anyone watching her career over the last couple of decades. She lacks the easy charm and charisma of her husband, and does much better in one-on-one interviews than in press klatches. Marcus worries that this habit will get worse if Hillary wins the White House, and she's right to do so. Candidates and politicians play to their strengths; for Bill, the press conference allowed his strengths in communication to come to the fore. George Bush does press conferences because he has to do them, and Hillary would probably do them even less often.

There is another element at work here, too. Hillary tends towards the secretive. She got caught out by a question from Tim Russert on why her White House records remain sealed, seven years after the Clintons left. A woman running on her record should produce that record, but Hillary has kept them locked up tight. She obviously has little enthusiasm for openness, and it's a little surprising that Marcus just got around to noticing it.

The bigger surprise is Barack Obama, a man who does possess charm and charisma in public settings. He's also running rather far behind Hillary at the moment for the nomination. Does he really want to win this year? If he did, one would expect to see Obama calling presser after presser to get his message into the media. The lack of engagement with the press seems much more indicative of a lack of "fire in the belly" than anything Fred Thompson has done or said in a campaign far more criticized on that basis.

As Marcus notes, Hillary has made a mistake in disengagement. If she had faced the press more regularly, she may not have been so unprepared for the two questions that torpedoed her in the last debate. Her fumble on illegal immigrant drivers licenses and her sealed records show that she has not sharpened her skills on the campaign trail so far this year, and she's not getting any sharper by hiding from reporters.


TrackBack URL for this entry: