president harding and the question box -- 3/05/18

Today's selection -- from Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean. To bring order to his press conferences, President Warren Harding instituted the question box:

"Harding appreciated that not only to govern effectively, but to get reelected, he needed the press. On March 21, 1921, he held his first presidential press conference, with about fifty reporters. In fact, he met them at the door of the Oval Office, shaking hands with each, adding personal greetings or words for those he knew. He then went back to his desk, where he stood and answered their ques­tions. One reason reporters liked Harding was explained by another reporter who covered Harding's administration: 'Harding talked freely about the operations of government,' Frederick Essary said. Harding was known by reporters for his openness and frankness.

"As Harding's White House press conferences evolved, guidelines were adopted. Unfortunately for history, no stenographic record was made because Harding wanted to keep them informal. Unless the president indicated otherwise, he was not to be directly quoted; rather, he was referred to as 'a high official' or some such similar identification. After eight months' experience, and when the numbers attending had significantly grown, Harding added another rule to increase the efficiency of the sessions. With increasing numbers of reporters attending, often many reporters did not get answers to their questions that both they and the president felt were important. Accordingly, the White House created a question box, where reporters deposited their questions up to the time of the press conference. Then, at the press conference, the written questions were given to the president and he would decide which he should and would answer as well as those he felt -- as a matter of policy -- he should not answer. As the New York Times explained, 'at times conflicting interpretations have been placed on his refusal to answer.' Given the range of questions asked, which the Times described as 'from cabbages to kings,' his occasional failure to respond as fully as the reporter or editor might have liked had on occasion been 'misconstrued.' The written-question arrangement solved this problem and pleased both reporters and their editors.

"It is often incorrectly reported that Harding instituted the written-question practice after he made a misstatement (that had been quickly corrected) during the Washington Disarmament Conference in late December 1921, and because of his misstate­ment, Secretary of State Hughes had demanded that Harding insti­tute the written procedure. This explanation is not correct; had those who concocted the story (or those who have often repeated it) bothered to check, they would have learned that the New York Times of December 21, 1921, reported that the president had mis­spoken during the Disarmament Conference 'in response to a writ­ten question,' for the procedure had been implemented a month earlier, which was also reported in the Times.

"Naturally, neither Harding nor the White House press corps was always completely happy with their relationship. A president always has more information than can be given to the news media; and the news media always wants more from a president than can be given. Even so, Harding's unique relationship with the news media continued. Harding biographer Robert Murray, writ­ing in 1969, found that '[u]nquestionably Harding had the best relationship with the press of any president in history.' To Mur­ray's statement it might be added, 'while he was alive.' With the exception of the early years of FDR, no president has ever had the open and comfortable relationship with reporters that Harding did. As Murray explains, Harding's 'affinity [with the working press] arose partially from the fact that he, too, was a newspaper man. But it went beyond that. Reporters liked his frankness in confessing his limitations and his refreshing candor about presi­dential problems. The press was taken behind the scenes and shown the inner workings of the presidency to an extent never allowed before.' "



John W. Dean


Warren G. Harding: The American Presidents Series: The 29th President, 1921-1923


Times Books


Copyright 2004 by John W. Dean


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