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Why should the press be polite to presidents?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
June 22, 2012 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
President Obama responds to a shouted question by a reporter with The Daily Caller at the White House last week.
President Obama responds to a shouted question by a reporter with The Daily Caller at the White House last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: Obama's recent interruption by Daily Caller reporter portrayed as rude
  • But he says there is long history of aggressive questioning of presidents by press
  • He says Wilson threatened to punch a reporter, Eisenhower was asked about his eye
  • Stanley: When presidents, like Obama, give few press conferences, pent-up press gets blunt

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for The Daily Telegraph in Britain. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- The comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to complain, "I don't get no respect." Sometimes, it feels like those words ought to be printed on the presidential seal.

Last week, Barack Obama was interrupted by Daily Caller journalist Neil Munro while making a statement on immigration. Munro shouted questions at him until the president was forced to stop and demand silence. Many media outlets, particularly those with a liberal bent, were outraged.

The UK Guardian called it "a breach of etiquette so severe it managed to shock even the notoriously unfastidious journalistic profession." An MSNBC panel acknowledged that news conferences under Clinton and Bush could get awkward, but concluded that Obama gets even rougher treatment because of the color of his skin. The fact that Munro was shouting questions about immigration only added to the impression that the president's conservative persecutors are motivated by race.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

The problem is that this theory only holds up if Obama is being treated with a historically unique degree of hostility. He's not.

Relations between presidents and press have always been fraught. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first POTUS to try to cultivate journalists: He assigned them a room in the White House. But journalists who put out reports without Teddy's consent (so-called "Muckrakers") were cut out of the loop, denied access to any federal department. Incidentally, Roosevelt's relations with ordinary voters were just as prickly. In 1912, he was shot while giving a speech on the campaign trail. With admirable sangfroid, Teddy calculated from the lack of blood that the bullet had not penetrated any organs and finished his oration, before being rushed to the nearest hospital. It puts Obama being told "You lie!" into perspective.

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It was Woodrow Wilson who started the formal press conference, and quickly regretted it. When reporters printed romantic rumors about his daughter, Margaret, Wilson harangued the press corps. "This must stop!" he shouted. "On the next offense, I shall do what any other indignant father would do. I will punch the man who prints it on the nose."

Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the press conference into the question and answer session we know today and mastered it. But poor Dwight Eisenhower, who was used to getting 100% respect as a soldier, found the experience as a citizen rather trying. At his first conference after he had declared his candidacy for the presidency in 1952, he was shocked when, in the middle of a speech about the defenses of Europe, a journalist interrupted to ask, "What's the matter with your eye?" The general explained that he had an infection. At a later date, he was asked his opinion of his rival Robert Taft and said, "He's a goddam isolationist." Eisenhower was genuinely surprised when the remark was printed.

Things only got worse in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon's combative approach to the press turned Watergate-era press conferences into a battleground. At a press conference on October 26, 1973, Nixon complained, "I have never seen or heard such outrageous, vicious, gutter reporting in 27 years of public life." Addressing one reporter, he added, "Yet, don't get the impression that you rouse my anger. You see, one can only be angry with those he respects."

Watergate changed everything: After that, presidents would shield themselves from the press and try to manage their public appearances better. This wiped clean the popular memory of fiery exchanges, interruptions and acid put downs that had defined the previous century. A new dynamic occurred, whereby there would be long periods of managed relations between press and president that gave the false impression of obeyed protocol and mutual respect. But then, in the midst of a crisis, all the bottled-up emotions would get released at once.

For example, while Lyndon Johnson held 135 solitary press conferences during his time in office, Ronald Reagan held only 46. The result was that when Reagan did take questions, the journalists often let him have it. The most notorious occasion was November 25, 1986, when Reagan held a press conference with Attorney General Ed Meese to discuss the Iran-Contra scandal. The president was interrupted by several reporters in the room — and reporters were still shouting questions as he walked away from the microphone.

A large part of Obama's problem is that he has followed the Reagan example -- testing the patience of the press by prioritizing stage managed events (he gave 408 interviews in his first three years, compared with George W. Bush's 136) over question and answer sessions.

According to political science professor Martha Kumar, Obama has held fewer press conferences for the White House press corps (17) than Bill Clinton (31), George H.W. Bush (56), and even Ronald Reagan (21) in the first three years. (George W. Bush, however, held only 11). Indeed, it's notable that after his confrontation with Neil Munro, Obama did not take questions. He was there to make a statement — it was not a news conference -- and it is understandable that some in the press might find that frustrating.

The bigger, more sensitive issue is the degree to which liberal supporters of the president are conflating disrespect and racism -- and so actually poisoning the political atmosphere even further.

Munro's interruption was rude and he deserved all the criticism he got. But times are tough in America right now and when things get rough, people inevitably turn on their leaders. Obama's announcement that the administration would grant effective amnesty to 800,000 children of illegal immigrants was bound to provoke an impassioned response.

A classier person than Munro might have found a better way to voice anxieties. But invoking "racism" as the only way to understand the righteous fury of the right sounds like an attempt to gag the opposition. The fact is that Obama is a controversial president during a difficult time in American history. It's surprising that he hasn't been interrupted more rudely and more often.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

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