Humor and presidential press conferences

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Since live presidential press conferences started when John F. Kennedy was in office, every chief executive since then has wanted to emulate his ability to use humor as a way to keep the reporters in line and sway the public with that natural gift.

I've attended at least some press conferences with all the presidents since JFK. None have been able to capture his ability, with the exception of Ronald Reagan.

White House advisers knew what they were doing when they permitted TV cameras in the room where JFK met the press at the State Department. Kennedy knew when to be serious, when to duck a loaded question, and when to needle a reporter. He was never mean-spirited.

Lyndon B. Johnson was too preoccupied with his performances to be funny. He was unable to come close to Kennedy, and he knew it. As the country became mired in Vietnam, Johnson grew progressively edgy, barely hiding his anger at any questions about his policies or his decisions.

Richard Nixon was uncomfortable with the White House press corps, and it showed. He was more contemptuous than LBJ of reporters, most of whom shared that dislike of him. And as his presidency drew to an end in resignation and disgrace, he couldn't shield his near hatred of reporters. The few times Nixon tried humor, it didn't register.

Gerald Ford was at ease with the press corps. He genuinely liked the news crowd, even when it was nipping at him after he pardoned Nixon. Ford, who never expected to be president, was a genuine and rare politician who was comfortable in his own skin. He could laugh at himself, too.

Jimmy Carter was a serious leader. While his campaign posters always showed him with a wide and toothy grin, he was nearly humorless with the White House correspondents. His press secretary, Jody Powell, could be very funny, but he was unable to transpose that ability to his boss.

Ronald Reagan, the Gipper, was an actor before politics beckoned. He knew the names of only a few reporters, but he could spar with all of them. And he had that special knack of poking fun at himself without diminishing his office. Like Kennedy, he knew when to be serious and when to be funny. He had the timing down pat.

George H. W. Bush could produce laughter with some goofy answers to questions—such as "don't cry for me, Argentina" when asked about his problems. He liked the give-and-take with reporters in the briefing room, but he didn't like the formal TV press conferences,

Bill Clinton was the consummate politician. He knew all the reporters by name and didn't really need a seating chart as a cheat sheet. He had a sense of humor until his second-term blues with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. The Clinton White House, like all the others, could be a friendly venue for reporters in good times but a bunker when things went south.

George W. Bush has a sense of humor, but a mean streak in him always seems to surface. He can make self-deprecating comments, but there is always a hard edge to his jousting with reporters. Bush can get reporters laughing at his digs at individuals whom he uses as ploys.

The bottom line, however, is that Bush has a strained relationship with the press, even more so with his policies in Iraq drawing more fire every day.