Seeking Sunshine As Press Secretary Jay Carney Takes The Stage

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Press briefings are bad theater, and the White House is as close as Washington, D.C. gets to Broadway. So on Wednesday, when Jay Carney took the stage as the new White House press secretary, every seat was taken and the aisles were packed. People had not so much gathered to hear what he would say—the press secretary rarely says anything newsworthy in briefings these days. They wanted to see how he would perform. As one reporter asked Carney, “Do you have a preference on which member of the cast of ‘Saturday Night Live’ plays you this weekend?”

This makes me the theater critic, and this a theater review. Which is a bit awkward, since there are some disclosures to make: Before Carney’s current stint in government service, he was one of the people who hired me at TIME magazine. He was my direct supervisor for more than a year, giving me my performance review and signing my expense reports. After John McCain won the nomination, we both reported on McCain’s 2008 campaign together. Carney set up the lease for my Connecticut Avenue office. I think he picked out the carpet where my feet now rest.

And I am not the only White House reporter who knew Carney in a former incarnation. Many in the press corps worked with him when he was the White House reporter for TIME. Folks travelled with him on Air Force One, griped with him in filing centers, and drank with him after work. More still know him from reporting on the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. He was, for about 20 years, a journalist through and through, a validated member of a squalid tribe. Then he crossed the line.

When it began to dribble out that Carney was likely to replace Robert Gibbs there was lots of airy speculation from pundits who rarely visit the White House about what it might all mean. Gibbs, predictably, had gained the ire of many in the press. He tended to filibuster, and dodge. He didn’t always return emails, and when he did, his answers didn’t always mean so much. He came from the world of cutthroat campaigns, where manipulation of information was often both the method and the goal. He had little experience with the tedious minutia of being a reporter.

In recent weeks, this contrast led the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to erect a straw man argument—that Carney’s arrival would usher in a new era of press room harmony. Milbank wrote a column about a nasty email Carney had once sent as the press secretary for Joe Biden. Milbank claimed that he wanted to “discredit the notion that Carney will, by virtue of being a longtime journalist, automatically bring a new era of sunshine into the White House briefing room.” Um, duh. The Milbank column read like payback, and it painted with such a broad brush that it missed a central point.

The basic physics between reporter and source at the White House have been, and will always be, transactional. Presidents and their staffs try to manage their press. Reporters try to find out what is happening. These are often conflicting interests. Complicating things further, press secretaries play the dual role of chief information manipulator, and front line information providers. They are supposed to follow certain rules: Don’t lie, stay accessible and appear interested in helping reporters. But their overriding mission is to protect and promote the president, not to provide sunshine. Press secretaries prefer sunshine when it furthers their narrow goals. No more, no less.

Carney, who won awards working with press secretaries on the White House beat, knows this well, and this knowledge is among the assets he brings to his new job. When he left TIME he made a decision to cross a line completely. I dealt with him regularly when he worked in the Vice President’s office. There was never a moment when he gave a wink to his old hire that said, “Yeah, I know this is all a load of bullpucky, but I am just doing my job.” He had stopped being a journalist. He protected and promoted Biden. And like my colleagues, I used our interactions to try to figure out what was happening. He helped to the degree that it promoted and protected his employer.

Which returns us to Wednesday’s curtain raiser in the briefing room. The first question Carney got was about how he would straddle the line between his old calling and his new employer. The answer was rather direct, if milquetoast: “I work to promote the president and the messages he’s trying to convey to the American people,” Carney said. “But I also work with the press to try to help you do your jobs, to help you cover the White House, cover the administration and report on what we’re doing here.”

In other words, he would provide sunshine to the extent it helps Obama, which is pretty much the definition of a press secretary. But even here, there is room for Carney to make an improvement over Gibbs, who had never known the joys and agonies of working as a reporter. A case in point happened on Monday: After a marine helicopter ride from Washington D.C. to a middle school outside Baltimore, the travelling press pool was ushered, as is the habit, past the secret service from position to position so that we could watch President Obama do things: Shake hands in an 8th grade science class, give an address about the budget and entertain a lunch room full of screeching students.

As we were leaving the cafeteria, Carney approached us with his notebook in hand. He had taken down some quotes from a conversation that President Obama and a school teacher had in the hallway, when the press was not around. It was nothing spectacular. (“I love your enthusiasm,” Obama said. “I just love what I do,” the teacher replied.) It was sunshine in a way, the sort of sunshine that promoted the president. But more important than the quotes themselves was the fact that Carney was trying to pass them on. These sort of behind the scenes details, especially ones so mundane, were rarely, if ever, relayed by Gibbs. But the new guy, as a former journalist, seemed to be trying to share our pain.

At the Wednesday briefing, the Carney sunshine was less evident. Behind the podium, Carney stands lower than Gibbs, and though older, appears younger. He answered questions more briskly, with less adventurous attempts at humor, but he showed no less enthusiasm for evading direct responses. Eight times he referred reporters to the other agencies to get their questions answered. Three times he said he was not an economist, quoting one of Gibbs’ favorite dodges. Seven times he said what he was not going to do—speculate, negotiate, etc.—from the podium.

Most of what he did say had the look, feel and taste of a recycled talking point. Three times he used the phrase “win the future.” Twice he used the phrase “big things.” When he said, “We cannot support arbitrary or irresponsible or deep cuts that undermine our ability to grow the economy or create jobs or win the future or harm our national security or — or other essential functions of government,” he appeared to be reading from a script on his desk.

The most telling moment came when he got a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd, asking if President Obama’s decision to do local television interviews in the home districts of several prominent Republicans amounted to sending a message to those Republicans. 

Todd’s question all but answered itself, but Carney dodged, choosing recycled message pablum. “I think those are important states, important parts of the country,” he said, “And he’s very eager to talk to and reach out to Americans in all parts of the country, to explain what he’s doing on the budget, explain his vision for the future, the need to reduce spending reasonably, promote economic growth and invest in the areas that will help us compete in a very competitive environment in the 21st century.” Not exactly sunshine.

In the end, Carney’s biggest success was to avoid any big flubs, or provide any obvious ways for Saturday Night Live to lampoon his performance. (He did seem to swish his drink around in his mouth every time he took a sip.) The last question of the day came from Mark Knoller, the long time White House correspondent from CBS radio. “Which side do you prefer to be on?” he asked.

“I like it up here,” the press secretary answered. With that, the Carney era officially began. It is difficult to doubt his allegiances. Whether he will better serve the press remains an open question.