Clinton and the art of public speaking

28th December 1997

I was enthralled with President Bill Clinton's end-of-the year formal press conference Dee which I saw live on television.

I was 24 years old when I attended my only presidential press conference, one of president John Kennedy's press conferences in 1961.

Clinton was everything: loquacious (not unusual), irritated (at least once), combative (several times), confident (except when he appeared to falter - only once I think), definitely well-prepared and briefed (I marvelled at his memory and grasp of wide ranging subjects). All in all it was a masterful performance. A good communicator although not in the sense of president Ronald Reagan. Clinton did raise an occasional tittle while Reagan cracked jokes and told stories which definitely caused more laughter and sometimes reinforcing his critics' poor perception of him.

Whatever his critics said Reagan was a very, very popular president. He is the oldest man to be elected president and when he left off1ce in 1989 he was 78 years old.

The 94-minute command performance, according to available evidence, was the longest ever by any of the 42 American presidents. It did demonstrate two things: Clinton has a lot of time on his hands and that he is on a strong wicket.

Clinton's critics allege that he does not have much to do being a lame duck. He denies this. Of course, he has plenty to attend to. I cannot imagine the leader of the only superpower on earth lacks work! In the words of John Broder of New York Times (Dee 17), Clinton took pains "to project an image of action and engagement, an answer to a spreading sense that as he completes his fifth year in office, he has lost some of his storied zest for governing. Not so, the president insisted, and stressed: "We had a good year because we're all working hard. And all I can tell you is, in '98 it will be a more vigorous year, and perhaps you'll have questions about that. But we intend to have a very, a very active time.

"Well, first of all, the American economy is strong and the new numbers on low inflation, coupled with the very high rate of business investments, show that we have a significant capacity to continue to grow from within." At one stage during the meeting Clinton asked the American media to give a chance for the foreign press to field questions. One, two, three or four foreign journalists surfaced.

Firstly, not unexpectedly a south Asian. Well, he could have been an Indian, a Bangladeshi or a Pakistani. Then an east Asian. I think a Chinese if not a Taiwanese, followed by a Russian or may be someone from the Balkans and lastly a pleasing-looking Latin American woman TV reporter with an attractive Spanish accent. My attention was distracted!

The American journalists would identify themselves and their organizations and in many instances the president recognised them by their Christian names, including the famous Sarah MaClendon who posed a sympathetic question about Vice President Albert Gore who seemed to be under attack by both Republicans and fellow Democrats.

"Yes, Sarah," Clinton said and beamed a friendly smile.

Sarah, despite her advanced age, in a lucid voice hardly quivering fielded her question. A friendly question deserved a friendly answer.

An ABC Television reporter visibly irritated the president when he said Clinton's race initiative dialogue was little more than "presidential Oprah."

Clinton countered irritably: "That may be your editorial comment. That's not my reports. If that's your opinion, state your opinion, who are they? name one, just one. Give me a name. I think all this other stuff, you know, it's confusing to the American people when they hear all these anonymous sources flying around."

Sarah was present at the first presidential press conference I attended. Who is Sarah MaClendon? She is a legendary figure in American media. She has covered the White House for the last 54 years for TV, newspapers and radio.

She is also a publisher of a bi-weekly newsletter about politics and diplomacy in the American capital; a former foreign correspondents and a champion of women in media, government and politics.

Sarah was born in a small Texan town in 1910. Legend had it that her questions sent President Dwight Eisenhower into incoherent rages, made Kennedy go blank in mid-sentence and froze the warmth from Lyndon John son's face, caused Nixon to clear out the veterans administration, made Ronald Reagan barricade himself behind a wall of jokes and had George Bush running for cover. I have paraphrased all this from the flap of her memoir called Mr. President, President! - My fifty years of covering the White House published last year.

The 87-year-old scribe has been covering and uncovering the White House and Washington longer than anyone else alive, beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt. She has questioned the past 11 presidents and was still at it two weeks ago with Clinton. The 42nd American president is the eleventh president to spar with this ancient "Iron Lady" of American journalism.

She has mellowed somewhat, however, judged by that Tuesday appearance has lost none of her incisive and thoughtful intervention. Sarah did make Clinton smile, even if it was a weak one, but made him, I suppose to think about Gore whom he defended, adored and championed as the next Democrat presidential nominee to succeed him in the White House.

He told the Democrats "There is plenty of time for presidential politics. I would say that to the Republicans as well. And the most important thing now is to-make progress on the problems of the country and on the promise of the country."