When Dee Dee Myers took the podium as Bill Clinton’s first press secretary in 1993, there were about 50 active websites.
When Dana Perino stepped down as George W. Bush’s final press secretary in 2009, there were about 20 billion.
The two women were the bookends on an event Monday night bringing together press secretaries from the last two administrations at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Also there were Mike McCurry (Clinton press secretary December 1994 to August 1998) and Ari Fleischer (Bush press secretary January 2001 to July 2003). Clinton’s final press secretary, Joe Lockhart, was scheduled to attend but canceled at the last minute for health reasons.
Moderated by media school Director Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief, the group rehashed old stories -- the Monica Lewinsky scandal for McCurry, 9/11 for Fleischer -- but also reflected on the way the job has changed over the years and offered their critiques of the Obama administration with the benefit of their own 20/20 hindsight.
“It was an idiot who allowed the TV cameras to go in there,” joked McCurry, who authorized the decision to let cameras film the entire briefing with sound. “Good idea in 1995, bad idea when Monica Lewinsky came along.”
But it was the presence of cameras that, in some ways, empowered the press secretary. Fleischer talked about his ability to send messages from the podium, particularly during times of crisis. It was his role in 2003 to publicly challenge Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours or face war. The Iraqi leader stayed put, of course.
Indeed, Perino mentioned that the voice of the press secretary rings loud around the world. She said that when the current press secretary, Robert Gibbs, took over, she told him: “Don’t forget that while those people in the briefing room can drive you crazy sometimes, people all around the world are watching because they really want to know where the leader of the free world stands on their issues.”
But the reminiscing allowed for an evaluation of what the job has become. McCurry, in particular, was concerned about the conflict a press secretary faces filling the dual roles of providing information and serving as a mouthpiece for the president.
“If you kind of have to rise up and express righteous indignation from the White House podium on a matter of critical foreign-policy substance after you’ve just been engaged in some kind of political sparring back and forth on what the Republicans are doing and what the Democrats are doing, it’s jarring for the American public, because they don’t know which hat you’re wearing,” he said. “Are you the political pugilist working for the president, or are you the official spokesman on behalf of the United States government?”
He advocated for limiting the role of the press secretary and other political actors to comment on “critical matters of state,” and he called the method of disseminating information from one person in the White House to the entire American public “totally outdated.”
In a way, his warning served as a veiled criticism of Gibbs, who differed from his predecessors in that he has served as a close adviser to the president as well as the press secretary.
“I think it is nearly impossible to be a decision maker and a key policymaker on behalf of the president and simultaneously do the job that we have to do, because you almost have to be a fly on the wall watching all of these actors play out their roles to then watch the president make the decision and report faithfully on what actually happened,” McCurry said.
He wasn’t the only one. “You have to be a hand-holder as press secretary ... you can’t alienate any of the constituencies,” Myers said, talking about both the press and the decision makers that surround the president. Most of the former spokesmen advocated for the fly-on-the-wall approach that McCurry talked about.
There was some criticism of President Obama’s communication style. Perino said, “I think he gives a good speech, but I don’t think that’s the exact same as understanding the audience and understanding the moment and being able to deliver on that.” But the president got good reviews for his handling of the Egypt crisis, which is also a de facto compliment for Gibbs, who tightened access to the president after the riots broke out. That curtailing of access allowed for the “slow and steady” flow of information that Fleischer approved of. Gibbs received formal protests from the White House press associations for the move.
And, of course, there was some ribbing of the press. “The press always wants access. They won’t be satisfied until there’s an Oval Office cam,” joked Fleischer. But Perino was especially vocal about the fact that it was critical for press secretaries to defend the press to the president.