To the surprise of very few of my colleagues in the White House Press Corps, the President on Thursday tapped Jay Carney, Time Magazine’s onetime bureau chief and now communications director for Vice President Biden, as the new White House Press Secretary.
Many of us at the James Brady Briefing Room were privately rooting for Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton to succeed Robert Gibbs as Barack Obama’s top spokesman. At 33, Burton is a seasoned veteran of past presidential campaigns, was press secretary to two Democratic Members of Congress, and was traveling press secretary with Obama in the ’08 campaign. Almost always grinning, Burton’s good nature made him popular with White House reporters, many of whom grew exasperated with Gibbs over not getting back to them or favoring certain questioners in briefings. (At one point, when Gibbs returned to the podium after a days-long absence from the regular briefings, reporters in the Briefing Room began to chant “Bur-TON! Bur-TON!”)
Had Barack Obama been making the call himself, Burton likely would have moved up. The President has a close personal relationship with the young man who traveled with him before his big win in the Iowa caucuses of ’08. But in the choice of the 45-year-old Carney, one clearly sees the strong hand of new White House Chief of Staff, William Daley. Much of the “Obama ‘08ers”—former Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, Counselor David Axelrod, and Political Director Patrick Gaspard—are gone or going. Obama’s fellow Chicagoan Daley is clearly putting his own stamp on the post-2010 White House and this meant a top spokesman who was not a “campaign-type” but one who had strong press credentials and contacts.
That description clearly fits Jay Carney, the sixth press secretary I will be dealing with since becoming a White House correspondent and only the second former working journalist to hold the position in 36 years. Along with working for Time (including stints at its Moscow bureau), Carney has been a special correspondent for CNN. He was one of the few reporters on Air Force One with President George W. Bush on 9/11. Carney and his wife Claire Shipman (a correspondent for Good Morning America), are much-sought-after guests on the Georgetown dinner party circuit.
In many ways, his selection is not unlike those of the last two journalism “pros” who served as press secretary. Josh Bolton, George W. Bush’s chief of staff in his second term, clearly sensed the need for a press secretary who could connect with the press and public and scored a coup with getting the late Tony Snow. In less than two years, onetime Fox News pundit Snow wowed both the press corps and the viewing audience of the daily briefings. His death in ’08 after a valiant battle against cancer was a sad moment for all who knew him.
In 1974, then-White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld also felt the need for someone who could help President Gerald Ford deal with reporters who had grown increasingly hostile after his pardon of Richard Nixon. So he turned to one of their own: former NBC News correspondent Ron Nessen. To this day, Nessen—known fondly as “the commodore” for his love of boating–remains a much-liked figure among even the most cynical of reporters.
The choices of Ron Nessen and Tony Snow clearly reflected the desire of the President’s top aide for something fresh and different in facing the Fourth Estate. One can easily see the parallel’s with Jay Carney’s selection now. Whether he lives up to the level of their performances in the James Brady Briefing Room remains to be seen.