A bird’s eye view of the Governor’s weekly press conference
04/24/08 5:55PM By Steve Zind
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(Host) The weekly press conference has been a fixture in every governor's schedule since Thomas Salmon took office in the early 1970s.
Over the years it's gone through many changes - reflecting the personality of each governor who has held them.
Today, VPR's Steve Zind gives us a bird's eye view of the ritual.
(Zind) Since becoming regular fixtures in the governors' schedule, the weekly press conferences have morphed from an impromptu exchange with reporters to a more rehearsed presentation.
Former Associated Press Bureau Chief Chris Graff covered Vermont's governors for 30 years. Graff says Tom Salmon's press conferences were low key affairs.
By contrast, Howard Dean's weekly meetings with reporters often produced surprises.
(Graff) "In Howard Dean's case, he loved making news at his news conferences that was, in fact unplanned. If he got a question sometimes he'd look over at his staff or his press secretary and say, ‘Gee, my staff is going to be upset about this'. Dick Snelling really used them to lecture. He was not a person who could say ‘yes' or'no'. "
(Snelling) "Good afternoon"
(Zind) Graff says Snelling taped his conversations with journalists and frequently sent them notes when he disagreed with what they reported.
(Snelling) "No. No, I really haven't, and I've said this over and over and over again. I believe that we need to look very carefully at all the options..."
(Zind) Snelling's combative personality was intimidating for those new to his style. VPR's Bob Kinzel remembers the first time he asked Snelling a question at a press conference.
(Kinzel) "Governor Snelling looked down the table at me and said, ‘That's the stupidest question that anybody has ever asked me!'"
(Zind) Kinzel says he was so taken aback that it wasn't until afterward he realized Snelling never answered the question.
Reporters say Governor Jim Douglas isn't combative like Snelling, although one time last year, things get so heated that Douglas later apologized.
And unlike Dean, Douglas doesn't take his staff by surprise with unexpected announcements.
In fact Douglas carefully preps for press conferences in meetings like this one with his staff.
(Gibbs) "You're going to get a lot of questions..."
(Zind) On this particular day there's a crowd of people around the table in a small room off the governor's statehouse office - helping Douglas gear up for his weekly meeting with reporters.
There'll be an opening presentation with the health commissioner who'll talk about a new report, and the governor wants to be sure he knows enough about it to answer questions.
(Douglas) "We've got the report now, what's the strategy for distribution...."
(Zind) This kind of opening presentation was begun during the Kunin administration - and some reporters view it skeptically. But it gives the governor a chance to highlight a message.
(Zind) 30 minutes later, it's time to meet the press. A quick check online to see if there's any late breaking news...
(Douglas) "No national news that I might be asked about or anything?"
(Zind) And Douglas steps into a nearby room to face reporters.
(Douglas) "Well, thanks for coming this afternoon, I'm pleased to be joined by our health commissioner..."
(Zind) In addition to reporters, there's a small crowd of onlookers. It was Howard Dean who first invited anyone who wanted to to come by and observe.
Douglas has a reputation for staying on script - and reporters say they find it difficult to get him to say something new at a press conference.
Terri Hallenbeck covers Montpelier for the Burlington Free Press.
(Hallenbeck) "It can be frustrating. You don't necessarily go in expecting he will make news."
(Zind) But Hallenbeck says the governor isn't just talking to reporters- he's getting his message out to people who watch the press conferences on public access television.
Douglas himself cracks a joke when asked what he would compare his weekly press grilling to.
(Douglas) "Well, like a root canal! No, it's an important part of my responsibility to communicate, to be accessible. There's a certain amount of stress, perhaps, between the media and an elected official and I think it's healthy."
(Zind) Bob Kinzel agrees that the press conferences are important. Some other states' governors don't make themselves as available.
(Kinzel) "The great thing about press conferences with governors in Vermont is they're totally open- ended. The governor stands up there and takes questions about everything under the sun."
(Zind) There will be more questions and more answers next week at the governor's press conference and it's likely they'll be part of the news Vermonters hear from Montpelier.
For VPR News, I'm Steve Zind.