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The fading of a cultural touchstone: the Oval Office address


WASHINGTON » At historic moments in the television age, past American presidents turned to the Oval Office as their stage.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy interrupted prime-time television shows to tell Americans from the Oval Office why they had ordered troops to desegregate schools. Bill Clinton broke into programming from behind the presidential desk three times in a month to explain military actions in Haiti and Iraq. Ronald Reagan, the telegenic former actor, set the record for evening addresses from the Oval Office desk: 29 over two terms.

Even the untelegenic Richard M. Nixon spoke 22 times from the Oval Office in just five years, the last time to resign in disgrace.

The current president? It has been three years ago this summer that Barack Obama gave his only two prime-time addresses from the Oval Office — the first on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the second on ending combat operations in Iraq.

That ties the number for George W. Bush at a similar point in his presidency. After Bush’s first Oval Office address on Sept. 11, 2001, he gave just five more in eight years. The statistics come from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I wouldn’t say the Oval Office address is a thing of the past," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidency scholar at Towson University in Maryland. "It’s just going to be reserved for those presidents and those occasions where they feel they have to use it."

That is a sign of the times. In the second half of the 20th century, word that the president would address the nation made Americans stop and listen. For many baby boomers in particular, the speeches define the historical timeline of their lives.

But in this century, the Internet revolution and advances in television technology have changed presidents, citizens and the broadcasters who traditionally connected the two.

Instead of just three TV networks, Americans have myriad choices for entertainment and information, and viewership numbers for presidential addresses have fallen. Faced with new competition, broadcasters resist giving airtime to presidents, so presidents give fewer addresses (and evening news conferences). When they do want to speak, they increasingly choose arrangements more comfortable to them than sitting at a desk staring at a lens – a setup that Obama, known for his oratorical skills, likes no more than Bush did.

"I think it’s an odd format, and it makes him seem a little more stilted than he is, compared to standing before a crowd or in an interview," said Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Obama. "If someone convinces him that it makes sense, he’ll do it. But I don’t think it’s his favorite venue."

Even some supporters argue that a formal Oval Office address makes sense now because it would allow Obama to better address criticism of his health care law and the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency.

Among the proponents is a former spokesman for Obama, Robert Gibbs. "When the president speaks from the office that he occupies, and where he sits to make some of the biggest, most important decisions in our country, I think it’s a piece of real estate that fits what you’re trying to talk about and the decisions that you’re trying to grapple with," Gibbs said. "It would be a perfect place for an NSA address."

Yet when a reporter floated the idea on Twitter, Obama’s senior strategist, Dan Pfeiffer, called it "an argument from the ’80s" — when Reagan could draw tens of millions of viewers because three networks dominated the airwaves, cable TV was limited, and the Internet was not yet in wide use.

Viewership for Obama’s prime-time speeches outside the Oval Office has declined over his presidency to about 25 million. In 2011, 56.5 million viewers watched him announce the death of Osama bin Laden, not in prime time, but at 11:35 p.m.

Like most Americans older than 30, his advisers have memories of watching Oval Office addresses. In second grade, Pfeiffer wrote to Reagan to complain about the interruptions to his favorite program. For Favreau, born in 1981, the year Reagan took office, the recollections start with Clinton. "I remember seeing him in Oval Office addresses and thinking it was a huge deal," he said. "The whole family gathered around the television."

Yet both men, once working in the White House, came to see such events as something mostly for the memories. Each has done his part to help Obama continue the trend that Bush started of holding fewer Oval Office addresses.

And, Pfeiffer said, "I am willing to guarantee the next president will do it even less often than we do, assuming the media continues the same trajectory it’s on."

Obama, like Bush on occasion, has come to prefer the more dramatic staging of striding down the White House’s red-carpeted Cross Hall, then coming to a stop to speak, standing, at the stately East Room entry. He did that three times in 2011, speaking about Bin Laden’s killing, plans to leave Afghanistan and a debt-limit crisis.

"Aesthetically, the walk down the Cross Hall is a very powerful thing," Pfeiffer said.

Both Obama and Bush also took to traveling to places pertinent to their messages, and perhaps more vivid to networks and viewers. Obama unveiled his Afghanistan policy to an audience of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, for example. Bush addressed Hurricane Katrina from Jackson Square in New Orleans, where his speech was made possible by generators and communications equipment supplied by the White House.

For decades, technology did not allow such versatility. So both baby boomers and their children grew up with the familiar Oval Office shot.

With about 44,000 televisions nationwide in 1947, a small audience saw Harry S. Truman give the first address broadcast from the White House. He urged Americans to conserve food to aid postwar Europe — with "meatless Tuesdays," for example – setting the tone for later presidents, who would also use TV to directly appeal to Americans for support and even sacrifice.

In 1950, 9 percent of households had televisions, but the figure jumped to 87 percent by the end of Eisenhower’s presidency in 1960, Kumar, the presidency scholar, said. "I really think that Eisenhower is the first television president," she said – not Kennedy, as popularly believed.

After ordering troops to Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 to protect nine black teenagers who were integrating the all-white Central High School, Eisenhower told viewers why he was explaining his actions from the Oval Office. "I felt that, in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled to take and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course," he said.

But he also got time for more routine or obviously political speeches that networks would reject now – to talk about his first-year accomplishments, his foreign trips (before and after) and his decision to seek re-election.

"If the White House asked for time, you did it," said Robin Sproul, who has been the Washington bureau chief for ABC News for 20 years.

But as time went on, networks already reluctant to sacrifice airtime pushed back against requests for speeches they deemed insufficiently newsworthy and too political. Sproul, however, expressed a sense that the nation had lost "that feeling of coming together as a country" that was once offered by such addresses. Except for presidential debates, she said, which last fall drew up to 67 million viewers, "there is no joint-community, town-hall-type experience anymore."

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