The Big 612

Last week, for a story by Annie Lowrey, the New York Times used on its front page a photo of President Obama, his back to Pete Souza’s camera, conferring with 10 visible male aides arrayed in front of his Resolute Desk and a barely visible female aide, reported to be the legs of Valerie Jarrett. It caused a stir. Many people talked about it on cable. Many people wrote about it in stories and blogs. As Slate’s John Dickerson, among others, pointed out, there was more to the story than meets the eye. The resulting flap was more of a visual issue — one indelible photo — than a substantive one.

What was remarked on very little, if at all — with the possible exception of Adam Belmar and me on our last episode of Polioptics — was that the image was an example of self-reporting or, in this case, self exposure. The photo was part of the regular stream of images that Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza puts out to illustrate, as no prior administration has ever done (largely because of technological advancements), the near real-time sturm und drang of what goes on in the West Wing on a daily basis. There may indeed be photographic evidence that the next meeting on the President’s calendar was with 10 women and one man, but the composition of the photo may have been less interesting to the White House photo editor’s eye, thus it remains in the electronic files of the White House Photo Office.

* * *

Truism alert: evidence can be very telling.

Or maybe not.

Today brings another bit of data-driven evidence that’s likely to begin the chatter wheel spinning anew. Donovan Slack of POLITICO has posted an article noting that President Obama has conducted 79 press conferences during the four years of his first time. That number equates to a little more than half the number that President Clinton conducted at the same stage of his presidency, but almost three times the amount of press conferences that President Reagan held.

But 79 is not the most telling number in Donovan’s story. Indeed, 612 is the number that really pops for me in this brief post, courtesy of Professor Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University.

That is the number of “short question-and-answer sessions with reporters” that Bill Clinton held with reporters at his four-year mark. Compared with Obama’s 107 back-and-forth exchanges, Clinton was almost six times more talkative on a daily basis than the 44th President.

During my White House days, which spanned 1993 to 1997, those short question-and-answer sessions drove me nuts. They would take place in the Oval Office while welcoming a visiting head of state; in the Cabinet Room while meeting with Congressional leaders; on the rope line while walking out to Marine One or at the end of a presidential event on the road; at the door of his limousine after a dinner in Washington; or, indeed, while watching a football game at Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock.

President Clinton loved to talk. Answering questions was to him a balm for whatever press might have gone in a wayward direction during the previous news cycle. He treated them as a constant corrective measure to get his thoughts out, in abundance, even in a prophylactic way for news that might be about to break.

In communications parlance, he was “stepping on his message.”

All of the work that might have gone into writing a great speech or producing a beautiful event with a telling message, designed and packaged just so for the evening newscasts, was shunted onto the cutting room floor in favor of the more topical comments that emerged from the president’s mouth. Those moments, with a phalanx of lenses and microphones enveloping Clinton and with reporter’s questions lobbed in over the cameraman’s shoulders, weren’t pretty.

To a classically trained advance man who prided himself on the quality of the visual, they were tantamount to failure. All 612 of them.

Or maybe not.

Now 20 years removed from the first day of Bill Clinton’s first term, looking at the breakdown of numbers in Slack’s story, I’m inclined to revise my thinking.

President Obama – 107
President George W. Bush – 354
President Clinton 612
President George H. W. Bush – 313
President Reagan – 158

History shows, as clear as a series of five numbers, that Bill Clinton was, on a day-in, day-out basis, about twice more accessible than the Bushes who sandwiched him in history and four to six times chattier than the more disciplined communicators — Reagan and Obama — on the periphery of the modern television era.

We see in Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln a White House in which anyone could walk into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and petition the President. We glean from the photographic archives moments in which FDR allowed a crowd of reporters to fill in the nooks and crannies around his desk and carry on a dialogue. And I’m all too conscious of the many moments — 612, to be exact — in which I might have been escorting the press pool away from Bill Clinton only to boomerang back to his orbit when my Secret Service escort whispered in my ear, “he’s answering questions.”

So, more times than I thought I could count (no longer, thanks to Martha Joynt Kumar and the Big 612), our carefully staged moments, designed for the evening news and the next day’s papers, gave way to an ugly scrum in which the President talked. It made for some pretty unruly broadcast packages. But in the fullness of time, and in the eyes of history, perhaps it wasn’t that bad. When he was asked questions, usually, the President talked.

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