In August, shortly after Leon Panetta was appointed chief of staff, he put aside fleeting remarks to shouted questions that were demeaning both to him and the press corps and said he would try to have formal news conferences about every two weeks. The latest was yesterday afternoon, and reporters who watched his performance thought this was the old Bill Clinton -- the articulate, knowledgeable politician they covered in his successful run for the presidency.
During 45 minutes of questions and answers, he played to the hilt a string of successes on foreign policy, mocked the Republicans with JFK disdain, delivered a serious discourse on race relations, dealt nimbly with the immigration question that is roiling superstate California and displayed a policy-wonk's mastery of every issue tossed his way. While Americans must know by now that Mr. Clinton loves to talk more than any politician since Hubert Humphrey, what seems to be emerging is a game plan that is having initial success.
* The Friday afternoon format, for example: This gives the president a chance to put his spin on news over an entire 'D weekend.
* The clampdown on follow-up questions, for example: These often were show-off gambits by news people for the purpose of trying to nail the president in a contradiction or a fumble.
* The foreign policy emphasis, for example: Mr. Clinton has discovered belatedly that focusing like a laser on domestic issues subject to a recalcitrant Congress has its liabilities. If things are going right on foreign affairs, as they are at present, this is an area far more under presidential control.
Anyone who would have bet on Inauguration Day that Bill Clinton would be spending most of the last 11 days before mid-term elections on the most extensive presidential trip to the Middle East in 20 years could have drawn very, very long odds. Yet that is now in the cards. And why? Because it saves Democratic candidates the embarrassment of scampering away from their own unpopular president while giving him a chance to build his stature and his approval ratings abroad.
This strategy is not without its dangers. Clinton policy is most at risk in Haiti. His nuclear treaty with North Korea is riddled with controversial concessions. The Middle East is one long history of peace hopes thwarted. Bosnia is going into its third wartime winter.
But so long as the president shows increasing mastery of foreign policy and Republicans under Newt Gingrich lurch imprudently to the right of center, the bully pulpit gives Mr. Clinton the opening that has long eluded him. The formal news conference is a president's best way to communicate with the people -- provided he knows how to do it and does not overdo it.