One afternoon in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned reporters to his White House office. The garrulous chief executive, new to the job after the assassination of William McKinley, had chafed in his old role. He felt he had not a moment to waste.
The journalists found Roosevelt leaning back in an armchair, his cheeks foamed with lather, ready for his midday shave. As the “accidental” young president expounded, frequently leaping up to emphasize a point, his barber fought to keep the straight razor clear of the presidential throat.
“Sometimes these explosions interrupted a shave ten or a dozen times,” reporter Louis Brownlow remembered. “It was more fun to see than a circus.” The “Barber’s Hour” became a regular feature of Roosevelt’s two terms in office, and the presidential press conference was born.
Almost 120 years later, with another New Yorker improbably ensconced in the White House, Donald Trump is revolutionizing the press conference by transforming it into a campaign tactic.
“Trump is doing something different by holding so many press conferences during the campaign,” historian Howard Holzer told The Post. “When other recent presidents were running for reelection, they relied on staged events and photo ops. The rule was, ‘Say nothing that will get you into trouble.’ ”
In “The Presidents vs. The Press” (Dutton), out Tuesday, Holzer explores how 19 presidents both used and battled the news media of their day.
Ever since Teddy Roosevelt, the press conference — first private and off-the-record, later broadcast as must-see TV — has been a potent tool. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush held 142 of them during his four years in office, a modern-era record.
Trump, thanks to the near-daily coronavirus briefings he restarted in July, is on track to blow past that mark. With 66 formal press conferences this year alone, his tally now stands at 121. He’s using the steady stream of patter to seize the spotlight of each day’s news cycle — and to emphasize the contrast between himself and challenger Joe Biden.
“Here I am getting bombs thrown at me every day by frankly dishonest reporters,” Trump told Fox News on Monday. “That’s why my polls have gone up 10 or 12 points … but this guy hasn’t answered one question in months.”
“This president likes to put himself in front of the press. He likes to spar with them,” Holzer said, pointing to a recent analysis by political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar. She found that Trump answers 56 percent of reporters’ off-the-cuff questions — unlike other presidents of the last four decades, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, who shooed the scribes away 70 percent of the time.
“Trump goes right to the rope line,” Holzer observed. “He’s not just willing to engage with the press, he’s eager to.”
Trump’s briefings this year remind Holzer of another New Yorker: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“FDR held 998 press conferences, two a week with very rare interruptions,” Holzer said. “And he held them wherever he was — his home in Hyde Park, the ‘Little White House’ at Warm Springs, and in Washington” — just like Trump’s new habit of calling briefings at his Bedminster, NJ, golf resort.
“From the transcripts, we can see that FDR teased them — there was a lot of back and forth — and he got angry,” Holzer said. The book recounts FDR’s explosion when a correspondent asked, too soon, about reelection plans.
“My God!” the president barked. “Go and sit in the corner over there and put on your dunce cap and stand with your back to the crowd!”
After the telegenic John F. Kennedy turned the public press conference into prime-time entertainment, most presidents have used them to try to connect with Americans across the political divide.
“Trump, instead, is using them to reinforce the urgency of the candidacy to his base,” Holzer said.
“He’s going along with his natural instinct to engage, with the attitude: ‘I can win this battle — and when I don’t have the answer, I can always attack the press.’”
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