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Q&A; -- MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR

You could describe Martha Joynt Kumar as a dance critic.

After all, she has spent most of the last three decades observing, chronicling and commenting on one of the most delicate pas de deux on the planet - that between the president and the White House press corps.

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The most recent result of these efforts is the book Managing the President's Message: The White House Communications Operation, just published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It looks at the relationship between the last four presidents and the press at a time when the tempo of the dance was picking up, first with cable news, now the Internet.

Some of the book is historical research, but much of it comes from the days and days that Kumar spends in the belly of the beast, hanging out in the press room in the West Wing of the White House.

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'The National Journal is nice enough to let me use a desk when they are not there," she says.

Kumar teaches in the political science department of Towson University. She used to commute from Delaware, where her husband works. She bought a home in Washington in 1997 to be closer to her White House work.

A native of Alexandria, Va., Kumar specialized in Congress while getting her graduate degrees from Columbia University.

She first started going to the White House in 1975 when Michael Grossman, then chairman of the political science department at Towson, was researching the press operation. They co-wrote Portraying the President: The White House and the Media, which was published in 1981.

Grossman left for California, where he taught in the university system. Kumar stayed.

"I kept coming back to the White House from time to time to interview people," she says of the 1980s. "I began to spend a lot of time in the White House in the '90s and began coming on a regular basis in 1995, after Mike McCurry became press secretary."

Now she is something of a fixture, trusted by both sides in this dance. During her time there, she has interviewed every press secretary and all sorts of other administration officials, as well as reporters and editors.

The result is that Kumar has become the press operation's institutional memory, the keeper of facts and statistics that go beyond any one administration, or the tenure of most White House reporters.

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"I actually find both sides use my material," she says. "I always shared it with the reporters, I thought, why not share it with the White House? I thought, why blindside them? So I give it to both sides."

That trust made Kumar's research work easier.

"People were willing to talk to me about how they did their work," she says. "They saw me as a scholar looking objectively at why communication is important for the press and the White House." What is the thesis of your new book?

It deals with the way in which the modern White House seeks to manage the messages that they want to send to their various constituencies. From the White House point of view, it is not as easy as an outsider might think to get those messages out.

If they want to get a speech by the president covered, if they want to get it to the right audience, it is difficult, from their point of view, in this environment where there is a lot of noise they have to break through. There is opposition on the Hill trying to give their version. There are interest groups trying to do the same. Everyone is trying to use every opportunity to define who the president is, to a public that is often not that interested in listening. So they have to work in a lot of different way to get the public's attention.

That is true in this administration and it was true in the Clinton administration. Both believed that getting through to the public was not always so easy. Of course, even if you do get through to the public, it is no guarantee that a president is going to persuade them to his viewpoint. Look at Bush's 2005 effort to reform Social Security. Has this media approach changed in recent years?

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One time, if a president wanted TV time, he could get it by calling a press conference in the nighttime on Eastern time and have the whole nation watch. There were three television networks that everyone watched, and they all broadcast the press conferences. That was true for Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon, really all the way up through Reagan.

But once cable comes into the picture, people have many more choices, and they exercise them. It gets much more difficult to get your message out. And now the Internet has just sped everything up. I was adding things to the book up until the last minute about how the Bush team tries to use the internet. Has the White House always been fighting this battle?

It has moved from being an operation where the press office responded to reporters' need for information. The first press secretary appeared in 1929 as a staff assistant for press matters, but presidents had been dealing with the press for far longer than that. It used to be that the president's chief aide dealt with the press, going back to George Cortelyou in the 19th century, who worked with William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. His files are in the Library of Congress, and in reading them you can see that much of what he did in organizing trips for the press is what press secretaries would be doing today. That includes creating rules for reporters, trying to keep them in certain areas so they would not go wandering off all over the place. That's what they do today, of course, trying to round them up and keep them at bay. It started in the late 19th century.

George Akerson was the first press secretary, for Herbert Hoover. He had done communication work for Hoover in the Commerce Department, so he knew what the needs of the press were, but he was simply overwhelmed in the policy sense by the onset of the Depression.

When Franklin Roosevelt came in, he appointed an experienced reporter, Stephen Early, as his press secretary and had regular meetings with reporters. They could ask any question they wanted without submitting them beforehand, which had been the practice with Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Roosevelt liked the press. He met with them twice a week and, of course, there was lots of news. And for the press secretary, it was a lot easier than selling Hoover.

The press operation further developed under Eisenhower, bringing a former television producer on board to advise how to deal with TV. The press secretary, James Hagerty, had a good sense of planning, such as how you introduce policy initiatives, as well as dealing with the daily operation, which often is putting out fires.

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One of the big changes came in 1953 when press conferences went on the record. Before that they were off the record; the president decided what he wanted to release. Then in 1955, the press conferences started appearing on television, at first on a delayed basis, but they were out there for the public to see. A lot of baby boomers remember Kennedy's press conferences, which were entertaining events as he sparred with the press. There is a feeling now that there is less access to the president, that everything is now controlled and scripted. Is that the case?

Presidents and even their surrogates are more scripted than they were in the Kennedy years, but you have to realize that today the president appears more often than presidents did then. Kennedy was great at press conferences and that worked for both sides, the White House and the press. But now, in addition to press conferences, you have the short question-and-answer sessions, such as at the end of photo ops. Kennedy didn't have those.

People think there was some golden age, that things are now much more institutionalized, but presidents now respond to questions in a variety of different settings. If you look back, Eisenhower had 193 press conferences, 192 of them solo press conferences. Clinton also had 193, but many of them were not solo. But if you look at all the occasions that Clinton responded to reporters' questions, it's something like 1,600.

Bush has had fewer press conferences than Clinton, although the solo number has gone up recently. But his total number of interviews is 969 - 449 short question-and-answer sessions, 175 press conferences, 42 of those solo and 133 joint, 335 interviews and 10 other sessions. If you look at all the times he has addressed the nation, whether Oval Office speeches, or to small groups, or events in the Rose Garden, by the end of September, that number was 3,264. Clinton had 4,474 appearances in his eight years. So the nation is getting to see their president many times.

When the president appears with a foreign leader after they have had a joint meeting, Bush always warns his guest that the press will ignore whatever it was they were talking about and ask questions about the issue of the day. He's embarrassed by that. What do you think of the job done by the White House press? Martha Raddatz of ABC recently said she wouldn't want the job because they are just stenographers.

I think they do a good job. It is difficult for them to get information, particularly from this administration, but eventually it usually comes out. Raddatz's remark was really unfair because it doesn't mirror the way in which these reporters work, the kind of enterprise they do.

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I sit among a group of reporters and watch them work, the calls they make constantly, whether it is to flesh out a daily story or do something for the weekend. They deal with a lot of different issues - one day it might be the budget, the next day education, the next an emergency of some sort. There is a variety of things and they have to be prepared for that.

Martha Raddatz might enjoy a different kind of reporting, but the White House press is not a stenographer pool. She should come downstairs in the White House and watch these people work.

michael.hill@baltsun.com


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