Jules Witcover: White House press secretaries, then and now
WASHINGTON — As presidential spokesmen go, Sean Spicer has only been on the job less than three months, but he may have already qualified as the worst ever. It’s not only because of his outrageous and erroneous comment that Adolf Hitler never stooped to using chemical weapons against his own people, as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad did last week.
It’s also because Spicer is uniquely unsuited for dealing with the White House press corps. He is conspicuously and bitterly hostile to the mission they daily undertake to report on the words and actions of his boss, President Trump, and openly antagonistic to them and the legitimate function they share.
Spicer’s habitual personal insults toward his interrogators, particularly women, have turned the daily Q-and-A sessions into thinly veiled verbal brawls. He casts himself not as a conveyor of information but as a sparring partner in repeated rounds of defending the president’s every utterance.
I may be going too far in suggesting that Spicer is the worst ever to hold the job. I confess to only going back to 1954 on the beat, to the first Eisenhower term. Then, a crackerjack ex-New York Times reporter named Jim Hagerty held the post with grace and wit. He was highly regarded and had Ike’s confidence and ear, making him qualified to serve up reliable information on the president’s thinking and intentions.
It was Hagerty who encouraged Eisenhower, an earlier political novice, to open his press conferences to television cameras. In doing so, Hagerty imposed a delay on use of the films to allow a review before release to guard against any misspoken comment that might imperil national security, or so it was said at the time. Nothing was ever edited out.
In November of 1961, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger helped keep the Cuban Missile Crisis a secret until John Kennedy disclosed it on television, in one of presidential history’s most dramatic moments.
In the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s closed-mouthed press man, Ronald Ziegler, did his best to lowball the Watergate break-in and scandal that cost his boss the presidency. Several other Nixon aides went to the slammer, but Ziegler himself managed to escape the clutches of the law.
Perhaps the presidential press shop had its finest hour in 1974. New President Gerald Ford, in office only a month, pardoned Nixon for his Watergate crimes, and former Detroit News reporter Jerry terHorst in quiet protest resigned as Ford’s press secretary.
Two of the best press secretaries thereafter, Jimmy Carter’s Georgia sidekick Jody Powell and Mike McCurry for Bill Clinton, were straight shooters with the press corps through administrations that didn’t always get the most favorable press treatment. Powell was as close personally as any press secretary to his president, and reporters could count on information he conveyed.
Spicer, by contrast, came to the Trump administration by way of the Republican National Committee under chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin state chairman. Spicer had no close tie with Trump, who has critically and constantly looked over his shoulder at him, with obviously negative effect.
Spicer in the job has displayed an open antagonism toward many of the newsmen from major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, who undertook deep investigations into Trump’s business and charitable operations.
The new spokesman openly chided them at the daily briefings, accusing them of peddling “fake news” against Trump. Spicer established an uncommonly adversarial climate that soured the reporters’ assigned task of presenting the candidate’s views and objectives.
In Spicer’s hands, Trump’s aggressive war on professional journalism has complicated the reporters’ job of holding the new president to traditional standards of fact-checking and fair play. A result has been the erosion of the office of White House press secretary to the naked practice of political propaganda.
It is not too much to say that the office once conducted by professional practitioners from print journalism such as Jim Hagerty, and by television newsmen and women such as LBJ’s Bill Moyers and George W. Bush’s Tony Snow, has now fallen into the hands of the Sean Spicers, shills in the political propaganda game.