Meet C.J. Cregg—the White House press secretary Washington fantasies are made of.
For seven seasons on the NBC hit drama The West Wing, C.J. charmed viewers as the tough-as-nails, quick-witted aide who tangoed masterfully with the press. She rarely missed a beat, but even C.J. had her bad days. When left in the dark in an early episode about troop movements in the Kashmir region on the India-Pakistan border, Cregg is livid that other senior-level officials made her look like a fool during a press briefing.
“I was just starting to get their respect,” C.J., played by actress Allison Janney, vents to the communications director. “Do you know how long it’s going to take me to get it back?”
Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary for the Clinton administration, can empathize. After all, Myers was C.J.’s template in the mind of Hollywood producer Aaron Sorkin, and she served as a consultant for the show, lending insider knowledge and personal experiences. Both C.J. and Dee Dee hail from California, both dealt with the ethical implications of being in love with journalists, both have two-letter first names,
and neither emerged from her White House stint unscathed.
“It’s like seeing another press secretary standing behind the podium,” Myers says. “I think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there. I feel your pain. That’s rough.’ Or, ‘Oh, boy, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. Oh wait, yeah, it did.’ ”
The past 16 years have given Myers, 49, time to chew on her two years inside the real West Wing, and she has candidly shared those lessons with the public. She appears frequently on the lecture circuit and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair—where her husband, Todd Purdum, former White House reporter for The New York Times, is a political correspondent. In 2008, she published a book, Why Women Should Rule the World.
In fact, much of Myers’s post-West Wing career has focused on writing and talking about the need for more women to attain positions of authority—and the obstacles they face when they get there. She hopes to continue working on those issues in her new gig as managing director of the Glover Park Group, a public-relations firm that touts a host of other former Clinton administration officials, including founding partners Joe Lockhart, Carter Eskew, and Mike Feldman.
Ruling the world was not exactly on Myers’s mind when she signed on to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1991. He was then one in a crowded field of Democratic contenders who hardly expected to make it to the Oval Office—President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings were still in the 60s in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. Myers thought campaign work would be good experience, if nothing else. Lo and behold, months later, she was standing behind the lectern bearing the seal of the president of the United States as the first female White House press secretary.
Like C.J., Myers quickly developed a reputation for being funnier and more relatable than others on the hydra-headed communications staff in the Clinton White House. She dubbed reporters “the beasts” but did cartwheels for them as entertainment on the road. She held her own on David Letterman’s show. She even joked at a political dinner about Clinton’s defense that he hadn’t “inhaled.”
But there were pitfalls in being young and female in a crowded sandbox of press gurus. Myers was given a smaller salary and a lower rank than her predecessors. For the first few months, George Stephanopoulos, who was communications director, did the press briefings. Adding insult to injury, one reporter commented to The Washington Post that Myers’s office was “a closet compared to George’s.” The bigger issue became that she was excluded from Clinton’s inner circle and thus came off as ill-informed in front of a press corps that already felt shafted by the president. After two years, Myers was shown the door by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta during a staff shake-up meant to improve the president’s image-making machine.
Myers has concluded in hindsight that one of the problems she confronted in the White House is one that many women face in the workplace—she was given more responsibility than she had authority to carry out well. For professional women, too often the circumstances are stacked against their success.
“The price for doing anything about it was so high,” Myers says of her particular conundrum. “If you rocked the boat too much, not only did you hurt the president, but you hurt yourself.”
In the years since, Myers has also put forth a thesis that has a certain resonance in today’s world of polarized, hyperpartisan politics: Maybe a few more women in power would equate to more collegiality and less sniping in Washington. “When I started to think about what would really lead to a less confrontational and more consensus-oriented politics,” Myers says, “I really started to believe it would be that way if there were more women.”
The notion was in part sparked by Myers’s observation of the unlikely friendship between Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. “They don’t have much in common politically but, you know, they like the same shoes,” Myers says. “And they look for things to work on together.” With the number of women in Congress staying about the same, 2011 might not be the ideal year to test Myers’s theory. Yet she remains hopeful about the future for women in Washington.
“There’s been a major sea change in my professional life,” Myers says, adding, “We’re not there yet.”
This article appears in the November 20, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.