The stature of some press secretaries grows the longer they are away from the podium in the James S. Brady briefing room at the White House. Others fade quickly. Brady himself is known more for his role in fighting for gun control than he is for his time as Ronald Reagan’s spokesman. His tragic wounding and subsequent disability dwarf whatever he said in his press briefings.
Jerry terHorst, who resigned after only a month in the job because his boss, Gerry Ford, lied to him, was a hero to the press for about as long as he had been press secretary. He ended up working for the Ford Motor Company.
Bill Clinton’s second press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, had a rough ride in the job and a modest career in journalism since then.
Among the revered are Marlin Fitzwater, who served George H.W. Bush; Jody Powell, who was Jimmy Carter’s press secretary and has just died of a heart attack; and Mike McCurry of the Clinton administration. George W. Bush burned through two press secretaries before he tapped the beloved Tony Snow and the admired Dana Perino.
Barack Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, gets mixed reviews. He said that he talked to Powell and others about the job, but he executes it in his own eccentric way. This has some of the White House press corps up in arms and others giving him a passing grade. It is a classic case of where you sit.
The irritation begins with time-keeping. For Gibbs, but not Obama, nothing seems to go on time. The principal press briefing–the one seen on C-SPAN–is scheduled the night before, and reporters are e-mailed this along with the president’s schedule for the next day. Sometimes, this schedule arrives after 8 p.m., making the planning of the next day difficult.
That is only the beginning of the time problem. Invariably, the briefing time slips the next day. Updates delay the beginning of the briefing by one or more hours. But that is not final: Gibbs may make his entrance 20 or more minutes late and without apology.
Then the fault lines within the press corps really open up. They have to do with who gets to ask questions and who is shunned—and this, in turn, has to do with who has assigned seats and sits in the first two rows.
There is ugliness here. Here is class warfare by employment, and here is an unwitting exposure of the White House’s hand.
Clearly, television counts more than print–even dominant print outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Likewise, it is revealed in Gibbs’ world that the Associated Press trounces Reuters and Bloomberg. The foreign press gets very short schrift.
Gibbs’ clear favorites are the television networks and a new crop of correspondents he got to know on the campaign trail. Correspondents like Chuck Todd of NBC are often engaged in a colloquium to which the three dozen or more other correspondents are just spectators.
If you are not one of the favored, you sit in one of the back rows with your hand in the air for favor of recognition to ask a question. It does not happen often.
There is much less criticism of the substance of Gibbs’ answers than there is with his tardiness and favoritism. Gibbs will contentiously argue a point with a reporter, but he also will refreshingly admit when he does not have the answer. Also he does not indulge in dead-end referrals, such as “I refer you to the CIA,” or “I refer you to the vice president’s office.” George W. Bush’s first two press secretaries, Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, did this with exasperating frequency. Snow turned away wrath with philosophy and Perino handled heckling press with humor and efficiency.
Unfortunately, Gibbs’ fascination with a small number of TV reporters has carried over to the full-blown press conferences. The chosen few are again the chosen few. The rest of us are right there with the plotted plants: to be seen but not heard.
This is the year of the political talk show. Never have so many had so much to say about so little. No wonder CNN snapped up Tony Snow, when he left his job as White House press secretary. David Gregory, the uncontested successor to ABC’s Sam Donaldson as press corps lightening rod, is missing from NBC’s booth at the White House. He is doing a talk show for MSNBC–just one more talk show host in long lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, Keith Olbermann, Dan Abrahms, Wolf Blitzer, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown. Even C-SPAN does politics.
But if you do not get cable, do not worry. You can still get your fix of talking hosts on over-the-air broadcasting. Beginning on Friday night, there is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” It is the national anthem before the main event. The first-string players take the field on Sunday morning. On my dial the lineup is “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press with Tim Russert” and “Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.”
Two programs, “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” have been around since the days of radio. But all political broadcasting today owes much to a half-hour show that thundered to life 25 years ago. I speak of “The McLaughlin Group” and its extraordinary host, John McLaughlin.
McLaughlin invigorated the television talk show. He made the host a participant and encouraged contention, even shouting, among the guests.
It is hard now to remember how static the talk shows were. The host was a magisterial figure, who pretended he had no interest in the discussion. I was a panelist on “Meet The Press,” when Bill Monroe moderated it. There was a single guest who was interviewed by a panel of reporters. You could get in two questions, and that was it. It was a structure more satisfactory in concept than in practice. Once, when I was on the panel, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a guest. I knew Jackson well and while we were in makeup, he said, “I want you to take me to the mat, and ask me the hard questions.” Of course he knew, and I was to learn, that the format did not include hard questions.
McLaughlin’s show is now in some decline, overshadowed by the resources and sheer volume of the competition. It has moved to another channel in Washington; and its rating are falling, according to The Weekly Standard. The show is a little tired, and McLaughlin’s conservatism a little idiosyncratic.
I have to confess that McLaughlin has been important to my career. I started a television talk show called “White House Chronicle,” which airs on some PBS and many public access channels, mostly because I got tired of waiting on the short list to be a guest on “The McLaughlin Group.”
At a White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, McLaughlin came over and told me how much he enjoyed my show. I told him how much he was responsible for it. This seemed to make him very happy.
Meanwhile, back on the dial, it is all politics, all the time. Or, more accurately, it is more people saying more about the tiniest perturbation in the week’s presidential campaign news. The question is whether the public interest in politics will continue after this extraordinary election year–and with it, the 24-7 political talk.