To Enliven Politics, Ask a Few Questions

051506 article conason To Enliven Politics,  Ask a Few QuestionsHis ratings in free fall, President George W. Bush’s charm offensive is on: more press conferences, the hiring of “maverick” Tony Snow, even Dubya’s second fiddle to impersonator Steve Bridges at the White House correspondents’ dinner gag fest. Gone, for now anyway, is that “bubble” protecting Mr. Bush from what a senior advisor to the President once called the “reality-based community.”

There’s a way to end such executive oscillations between bubble and Bubba while restoring openness to both the White House and Congress in a time of widespread voter mistrust. It’s a forum whosze drama can help revive a democracy where just half the adults vote. It’s Question Time, a political centerpiece of two nations like ours, Britain and Canada. C-SPAN attracts millions of Americans who watch Tony Blair’s weekly grilling in the House of Commons. Far more would tune in to a monthly American Question Time pitting the President against his critics on Capitol Hill.

Early in 1993, rumor had it that President-elect Clinton was considering a form of Question Time. But then he took office and soon retreated from even regular press conferences. How dramatic was that retreat? President Bush’s press conference of Oct. 11, 2001 was the first prime-time session since 1995. For six blissful years, two Presidents had avoided going before cameras in prime time to swat away the softballs that dominate these one-sided meetings.

By 2003, Mr. Bush had held just 11 press conferences, compared with 91 by Dwight Eisenhower, 71 by his father and even 32 by the reclusive Richard Nixon at similar points in their Presidencies. This extreme isolation contrasted with Mr. Bush’s junior partner in the “coalition of the willing.” Tony Blair’s position on Iraq became so unpopular that, in contrast to Mr. Bush, he began to hold monthly press conferences at 10 Downing Street. It was very American, and traditionally very not done by Her Majesty’s First Minister.

Our last two Presidents compare feebly to John F. Kennedy, who met weekly with reporters. Although James Reston once called these televised sessions “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop,” Kennedy knew better: He used the press conference as a pipeline to the people. The format also served to show off, in the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s “intellectual speed and vivacity … the terse self-mocking with the exhilarating personal command.” But even these sessions were lopsided. We need a more equal meeting ground in Washington—and that could be Question Time.

Al Gore seemed to realize this. In 2000, inspired by his town meetings during the primaries, he pledged many more if elected. “It will be a centerpiece of the way I conduct an open, continuing, candid, no-holds-barred dialogue with the American people,” he said solemnly. But Presidential town meetings tend to be very slow pitches, even mash notes from gushing fans. Far closer to the spirit of Question Time was John McCain: He promised in 2000 to meet regularly at the White House with Congressional critics. “That kind of exchange would be good for America,” he said. Even so, a few Congressional nags in the Oval Office would still be pretty decorous compared to a full, howling body of them in a Question Time setting.

An earlier, and thorough, case for this kind of forum was made in 1942 by Thomas K. Finletter, a New Dealer who later served in the Truman and Kennedy administrations. Though a very liberal Democrat, Finletter was concerned about the increasingly strong Presidency of the man he served, Franklin Roosevelt. In his lively (if blandly titled) book, Can Representative Democracy Do the Job?, Finletter strongly urged a Question Time as a legislative check on his boss.

Given our current political alienation and the near extinction of the press conference, the need to restore some balance between the branches of government is even more relevant today. With a televised Question Time, Americans would have a regular, dramatic way to follow what their President and Congress were doing—or not doing—on their behalf.

In the meantime, we have the vanishing press conference and the State of the Union address, where the President commands the House lectern amid partisan huzzahs and standing ovations while also making like Ed Sullivan, asking plants in the House gallery to “take a bow” for their civic deeds.

Woodrow Wilson was the first President to actually give the State of the Union message, mandated by the Constitution, in person rather than through a letter. That idea set a fine precedent for Question Time, because the in-person speech has become a custom.

Our founding document doesn’t require the President to meet with the press—that’s a custom. And Question Time can become a custom too.

All it takes is a President willing to give it a try.