Frequent press conferences good practice for quick thinking

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

“Governor, give us 60 seconds on highway safety.”

Warren Knowles answered brightly and promptly. His answer was one or two seconds less than the TV reporter had sought. It was my first gubernatorial press conference. I was impressed about how he, and later, other Wisconsin governors could handle unexpected questions.

Wide-open, sit-down gubernatorial press conferences were a staple of Wisconsin government for most of the second half of the 20th Century. Governors in office from the 1950s and later decades were not in love with the unexpectedness of the issues popping up. Gubernatorial ideas were subjected to cross-examination from the press.

However annoying, it served well the governors of both parties. It made them think about how ideas might be cheered or hooted among the citizenry. You could see them improving their extemporaneous answers to unexpected questions and issues as the months wore on.

Sometimes the governors would have to retreat. Asked how Wisconsin could fight a surge in drunk driving in rural areas, Republican Lee Dreyfus said perhaps putting State Patrol cars outside rural taverns could slow the carnage.

The powerful Tavern League was furious, and Dreyfus retreated before the sun went down. The state would not put police cars outside the taverns.

Republican Tommy Thompson was questioned about Wisconsin’s education needs. Young people could learn more, he offered, if the school year were expanded by a week. Alas, that would take more tax dollars to run the buses, feed the children, and even turn on the lights. And the tourism industry saw it as a shortened vacation season.

Sometimes there were unexpected answers. Democrat Tony Earl talked about “grassers” when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State. Young reporters gasped. To them “grass” sounds like something related to marijuana rather than just a spring outdoor event in the 1950s.

Democrat Pat Lucey was holding forth at a press conference on a policy initiative to help the Hurley area. The forestry industry was one of the two big industries in Iron County, Lucey said. John Wyngaard, who wrote this column for decades, interjected, asking the governor, “What is the other industry?”

Many years earlier Hurley was rumored to have houses of “ill repute.” Lucey laughed, sensing Wynaard’s teasing. “M-mm-mining,” he replied.

Scott Walker could have used that sort of regular experience before he launched into his futile run for the Republican nomination for president. Walker is a regular on conservative radio talk show programs. It seems a safe exercise in preaching to his conservative believers.

Often reporters’ questions to Walker are shuttled off to a spokesperson. Or the reporters hear from the governor after a public appearance. The answeron the road doesn’t provide easy access for follow-up questions or fresh topics.

Would the old press conference format have helped the governor? Walker might have had better answers to unexpected questions as he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination. He might have laughed off the idea when asked about building a fence or wall to separate Canada and the United States. His “interesting idea” comment drew hoots from political pundits.

Perhaps Walker could also have avoided the blistering editorial in the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, about selective drug testing for the poor who get state financial help. The Register editorial said that “Walker’s idea of lending a hand” is “make low-income people pee in a cup.”

Shortly after it appeared, Walker left the presidential race.

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