A Brief(ing) History of the White House Press Secretary
Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockheart. Image Credit: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images
When a new president takes office, the White House press corps gets a new face behind the briefing podium. The White House press secretary is the key to controlling the flow of information between the presidential administration and journalists—putting together press releases, holding briefings for the press corps, and facilitating access to top officials in the administration. But the idea of an official White House press secretary is more recent than you might think.
Back in the 19th century, the press didn’t even have a regular presence at the White House—partly because the president just wasn't as powerful as Congress, so journalists didn't see a need. William W. Price, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, was perhaps the first White House beat reporter, stationing himself outside the White House to interview people on their way out of the building starting in 1895, and inspiring other reporters to follow suit. In 1896, some newspaper correspondents decided to take over a table outside the president’s secretary’s office (the 19th century equivalent of the chief of staff). They never really left, but it would be decades before the press got a dedicated presidential liaison.
During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, one of his aides, George Cortelyou—the president's "confidential stenographer"—began issuing presidential press releases and disseminating copies of the president’s speeches for the first time. Roosevelt finally gave the press dedicated space in the White House, meeting with reporters regularly.
Still, the first person to officially hold the White House Press Secretary title was George Akerson, who was appointed to the post in 1929 by Herbert Hoover. Akerson, like many subsequent press secretaries, had once been a journalist, serving as a Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Tribune. He later became Hoover’s assistant when Hoover was Commerce Secretary and served as his right-hand man during the presidential election campaign. Just how well Akerson did the press secretary job, though, is debated. Some call him "incompetent," while other historians say the loyal aide merely took the blame for his boss’s clear distaste for the press. He wouldn’t be the last press secretary to have his legacy tied up in his boss’s shortcomings, however.
TO QUOTE A PRESIDENT
Nowadays, we may hear the president’s words (and tweets) verbatim all the time, but the populace didn’t always have access to presidential sound bites. Before Hoover, reporters weren’t even allowed to quote their interviews with the president directly in the press. (When Woodrow Wilson became the first president to hold a formal press conference in 1913, the whole thing was off the record—no quotes allowed.)
But although Hoover would change this policy and promise a more open relationship with the media, his standing with the press fell rapidly over his term. Despite his promise to answer questions from journalists, for instance, he required reporters to submit all questions beforehand to Akerson, who met with the press twice a day. He would only answer the questions he liked, and sometimes, he wouldn’t answer any at all. In fact, the press wasn't truly free to quote the president until Eisenhower's administration, two decades later.
A MODERNIZING PRESS
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office after Hoover in 1933, the press secretary’s job had changed drastically. Stephen T. Early was the first press secretary to deal with a media landscape that wasn’t just newspapers but included radio and newsreels, too.
Early, a respected reporter who had broken the news of President Warren G. Harding’s 1923 death while at the Associated Press, had a key role in FDR’s media strategy. At his urging, the president held twice-weekly press conferences for the first time. Early also helped Roosevelt create his famous fireside chats—comforting, conversational radio broadcasts that appeared throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Early left his post shortly before the president’s death, returning to the White House for a brief two weeks later to work with Truman after the sudden death of press secretary Charles Ross [PDF].
New press secretaries have had to grapple with new challenges of the job each year. Mike McCurry (one of Bill Clinton’s press secretaries), for instance, was the first to televise press briefings in their entirety. First, he allowed a few minutes of the briefing to be filmed, slowly allowing the cameras to film more and more. He came to regret this when TV stations began broadcasting his briefings live during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, later calling it "the dumbest thing I ever did."
And the position of press secretary is (slowly) evolving, too. The post has historically been filled by men, and there have only been two women in history to take on the role. Dee Dee Meyers, Bill Clinton’s first press secretary, was the first, taking the podium in 1993. Meyers later became a consultant for The West Wing, and the character of the press secretary in the show, C.J. Cregg, was inspired by her. (Played by Allison Janney, Cregg is also the only fictional character to ever conduct a real White House press briefing.) George W. Bush hired Dana Perino in 2007, making her the second woman press secretary in history.
INSIDE THE PRESSURE-COOKER
It's rare for one press secretary to stay in the job for more than a few years because it’s so stressful. Only five press secretaries have stayed for the full term of the president who hired them. One of the longest-serving press secretaries, Marlin Fitzwater, told Editor & Publisher in 1996 that he thought his six years in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations were too much for him. "I think it’s too high-pressure. You get along OK, but you don’t realize how your effectiveness becomes diminished by just the daily battles," he said. "I don’t think a press secretary can survive in that kind of a pressure cooker for more than four or five years."
Of course, the pressures of the job differ based on the relationship the press secretary has with the president. Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary James Hagerty, for example, was one of Ike’s most trusted advisors, traveling to be by his side when the president was recovering from a heart attack and when he had surgery. Sometimes, in the middle of a press conference, Eisenhower would stop to consult with Hagerty. And Hagerty was the first one to allow journalists to quote the president’s words at press conferences in full, verbatim—giving him another boost in the eyes of the reporters he worked with.
Presidential administrations aren’t always so trusting. Scott McClellan, press secretary for George W. Bush, had difficulty squeezing accurate information out of senior White House officials, and as a result, his credibility with the press tanked. "He got pounded day after day because the president didn't allow him to do much more than repeat the talking points," Slate political columnist and CBS journalist John Dickerson wrote in 2006. Dickerson described the resignation of "dutiful, gracious, and somewhat piñatalike McClellan" as "one last symbolic mission" of self-sacrifice. Like Hoover’s press secretary George Akerson, McClellan was caught between reporters demanding more—and more accurate—information and White House bosses who didn’t want to reveal anything.
SERVING AS A GO-BETWEEN
But according to Ron Nessen, press secretary under Gerald Ford, the basic requirements of the job are the same regardless of the president. "I think most press secretaries, no matter what their background is, come to understand that the same set of rules apply year after year, administration after administration: Tell the truth, don’t lie, don’t cover up, put out the bad news yourself, put it out as soon as possible, put your own explanation on it, all those things," he explained in an article for eJournal USA.
And while each president has a unique—occasionally combative—relationship with the press, McCurry says that the press secretary shouldn’t be the enemy of members of the media. "The press office has to be an advocate for the press and the public's right to know inside the White House," he told the White House Historical Association. "Sometimes you will lose out to other priorities, but at least the press will sense that someone is looking out for its interests. That is the way to best serve the president. The modern presidency cannot work effectively if it is constantly at war with the media."