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President Biden fiddles while some in press burn

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden works overtime out of the gate with his massive $1.9 trillion economic recovery plan while issuing an avalanche of executive orders, some media critics complain he has not held a full-fledged White House press conference in his first nearly two months in office.

They note it’s the longest period without one in many years, observing that even Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge a century ago showed up to be grilled by the resident newshounds. As a group they have earned a reputation for posing uncomfortable and even rude inquiries to the leader for the free world.

Freedom-of-speech cheerleaders rightly observe that such sessions often bring to light presidential decisions or inclinations that warrant thorough interrogation for the good health of the Republic, or to catch as errant chief executive who has his hand in the nation’s cookie jar for personal gain or mischief.

This country endured a snootful of both in the four chaotic years of the Donald Trump presidency. But little in the nearly half a century of Joe Biden’s public career has raised major suspicions. Certainly, there were those well-publicized verbal gaffes and charges of minor or inordinate plagiarism that haunted his earlier years. But there was nothing of the severity or frequency of his immediate predecessor in the presidency.

It is being noted now that some reporters who covered Biden over his successful 2020 presidential campaign also complained of his failure to hold regular press conferences on the road, choosing rather to take only occasional questions on the run. Doing so enabled him and his handlers largely to retain the informational flow from the campaign to their advantage.

But a welcome approach came in Biden’s appointment of Jen Psaki, a seasoned Democratic spokesperson, as White House press secretary. From the very first of what have become nearly daily press briefings, she has been notably forthcoming.

She has assured reporters that the new president will hold his first formal White House press conference before the end of this month. Meanwhile, Biden has kept reporters occupied in print and on television commenting on his aggressive and comprehensive policy agenda in his first nearly two months in the Oval Office.

All this does not guarantee that this early relatively open-door policy will endure if and probably when the Biden administration hits a sudden rough patch.

The new president’s initial posture of dealing with the press corps, however, has earned him a bit more time to settle in and demonstrate his commitment and that of his team to regular White House press conferences.

It’s when the bad stuff hits the fan, as it eventually will, that candor and open acknowledgment are a president’s obligation to the nation.

Joe Biden has made a good start, but press perseverance is imperative to assure a much better outcome than we endured during four years of Trump’s open warfare on what he regularly and insidiously called “the enemy of the people.”

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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