the first white house press conference -- 11/14/14

Today's selection -- from Wilson by A. Scott Berg. Woodrow Wilson instituted the first presidential press conference in 1913 with the idea of introducing transparency to his office. He also re-instituted the practice of giving the State of the Union address in person. Since the days of Thomas Jefferson it had been delivered in writing instead. The speech lasted all of nine minutes:

"At 12:45 on March 15, 1913, the [Woodrow] Wilson Administration made history when it established what would become a convention of the Presidency. That Saturday afternoon, Tumulty ushered 125 members of the press corps into Wilson's office; and for the first time, a President held a White House press conference. Wilson was hardly the first President to talk to a journalist; indeed, Taft met occasionally with newspapermen after hours and granted them a few minutes of questions; and TR [Teddy Roosevelt] cherry-picked members of his 'newspaper cabinet,' allowing them to transcribe what he chose to dictate. To promote government transparency, Wilson announced that he intended to schedule regular conferences at which any journalist could ask whatever he wanted.

"If nothing else, the exercise was a good publicity tool for Wilson. Few could speak off the cuff with such ease, and he sometimes simply chose not to answer a question. Most of his responses -- terse and precise -- revealed nothing more than necessary, but his witty interplay with the press set the tone for relations between the press and future Presidents. 'As he went on talking, the big hit he was making with the crowd became evident,' reported The New York Times after the first gathering. 'There was something so unaffected and honest about his way of talking ... that it won everybody, despite the fact that many of the men there had come prejudiced against him.' Between March and December 1913 alone, Wilson appeared at sixty press conferences.

"At the second conference -- which moved to the much larger East Room -- Wilson took the press into his confidence and asked for its help. 'The only way I can succeed is by not having my mind live in Washington,' he said. 'My body has got to live there, but my mind has got to live in the United States, or else I will fail.' Wilson hoped the newspapermen would bring him a sense of the nation beyond the city in which they worked, considering themselves importers as much as exporters. ...

"The Constitution states that the President shall from time to time not only give to the Congress information on the state of the Union but also 'recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.' ...


"After John Adams left the Presidency in 1801, Presidents virtually discontinued their visits to the two legislative houses. Ostensibly to keep 'the President's Annual Message to Congress' from becoming a throne speech -- though possibly because he was not a good speaker -- Thomas Jefferson messengered his texts to the legislature for a clerk to read, and that practice became standard.

"The morning after his election, Woodrow Wilson had contemplated that clause, thanks to a journalist named Oliver P. Newman. In an off-the-record interview about executive style, Newman had suggested that Wilson might abandon the 112-year-old tradition and deliver important speeches in person. ... Thinking it would emphasize the cruciality of all that he wished to propose, Wilson asked the legislature to convene. Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift. Republicans, such as William O. Bradley of Kentucky, cautioned him to remember the separation of powers, saying, 'If Mr. Wilson comes to the Capitol to influence legislation, he will be more foolish than the donkey that swam the river to get a drink of water.' Several Democrats, such as John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, denounced the notion as a reversion to royalty. 'The practice instituted by Jefferson was more American than the old pomposities and cavalcadings between the White House and the Capitol,' Williams said. On April 8, 1913 -- for the first time since November 22, 1800, when John Adams delivered his fourth annual message -- a President of the United States rode the mile and a half from the White House to the Capitol for the purpose of addressing a joint session of Congress.

"Wilson staged the appearance with predictable simplicity, arriving by automobile with only a Secret Service guard. ... Just before one o'clock, the President appeared in the chamber, escorted by members of each house; and everybody rose and applauded. ...

"The President began by stating his primary reason for delivering this message in person, which was his long-held belief in humanizing institutions. He said he wanted them to know that the President of the United States 'is a person, not a mere department of the Government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power, sending messages, not speaking naturally and with his own voice -- that he is a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.' The audience applauded. ...

"His speech lasted nine minutes. Amid applause, Wilson left the chamber.

"In the car with his wife on the way back to the White House, Wilson kept chuckling under his breath. When, at last, Ellen asked what he was laughing about, he said, 'Wouldn't Teddy [Roosevelt, a former president known for enjoying attention] have been glad to think of that? -- I put one over on Teddy and am totally happy.' "



A. Scott Berg




The Berkley Publishing Group


Copyright 2013 by A. Scott Berg


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