Posted on June 3, 2014
Last Friday, Jay Carney announced he was leaving the White House.
Under difficult circumstances, I thought he did a pretty good job.
He wasn’t the best White House spokesman, but he wasn’t the worst either.
The best in my lifetime was Marlin Fitzwater.
Fitzwater oozed boring. He was a just-the-facts kind of Press Secretary who lasted through two Administrations, which is unprecedented. At 6 years, he was the longest serving Press Secretary in history.
Fitzwater was the kind of guy whose credibility helped to bring greater credibility to the Administration he served. He wasn’t a political hack whose political hackdom called into question everything that he said. He also wasn’t the kind of true believer that would try to get the press corps to drink the finest Kool-Aid ever served.
I thought Mike McCurry was very good at his job.
He was the guy who coined the phrase “telling the truth slowly” amid the most difficult times during the Clinton years.
Clinton’s personal troubles brought discredit to his Administration. McCurry’s explanations of those troubles helped to restore some credibility to a White House that sorely needed it.
The best of W’s press secretaries was Dana Perino. Dana brought some spunk to the White House podium and she had an appreciation for the truth that wasn’t necessarily shared by her predecessors. She knew the Hill and she wasn’t primarily a campaign person.
Campaign people shouldn’t be Presidential press secretaries. Campaign people like to construct narratives, find villains, tell stories (some of which are based on the truth). They don’t feel that they have to be responsive to the press, so they stonewall when they should be engaging with the Fourth Estate. This is what people do on campaigns.
But campaigns are different that governing. The truth matters, and it is typically very complicated when you govern. Having an appreciation for that complexity is an important part of establishing credibility.
The good press secretaries spend a lot of time in no man’s land; that place between the White House trench on one side and the media trench on the other. They shuttle information from the media to the White House and vice versa. They don’t feel content just hanging out in the Office at headquarters, leaving the press to their own devices.
The worst press secretaries refuse to engage with the media, don’t return their calls, give them only the thinnest of gruel, and retreat behind obtuse talking points.
Carney wasn’t the worst, but he wasn’t the best.
As a former journalist, he probably felt that the media would go easy on him. But they didn’t because they had already been burned by Carney’s predecessor, Robert Gibbs, who didn’t give anything up that he didn’t want to give up.
Carney didn’t exactly help restore the President’s credibility and he actually didn’t improve the relationship between Team Obama and Team media. But he didn’t make things worse either.
The Press helped to elect this President. Never in our nation’s history has the media been so blatantly biased in favor of a Presidential candidate.
Chris Matthews wasn’t the only journalist who felt a tingle up his legs. That feeling was widespread, especially in 2009 and 2010. And in many ways, the President still gets much fairer treatment than any Republican would, for a record of achievement that is mixed at best.
But the tide has turned, and it started to turn when the media felt it was being taken advantage of by an arrogant White House.
And lately, some courageous journalists, like Jonathan Karl, Major Garrett and Ron Fournier, have been much more aggressive in taking the President and his team on.
Carney had to deal with that as White House Press Secretary. Sometimes he did it convincingly. Sometimes, he was disaster. But he wasn’t consistently a disaster, and he wasn’t a drag on this White House.
And in this day and age, I suppose you should get some credit for that.