OPINION | Press secretary is tough job, especially in the age of Trump
© Getty Images

Many of the conventions and rituals of Washington seem out of whack in the chaos that is the age of Trump. That may not be all bad, since some ossified traditions certainly could use a remake.

But one thing that needs to endure is the daily press briefing at the White House. Ever since President Cleveland’s private secretary, Dan Lamont, began meeting with the “newspapermen” at the end of the 19th century, there have been regular, mostly daily encounters between presidents, their staffs, and journalists who cover the White House.

The relationship created moments of high drama and great whimsy. Steve Early did a masterful impression of President Roosevelt. James Hagerty more or less created the modern role of the White House press secretary under President Eisenhower. There are transcripts of Ike press conferences that carry the notation, “The president paused to confer with Mr. Hagerty.” I sort of like the idea of the president pausing to ask the press secretary how to get the answer right.

Ron Nessen. Larry Speakes. Jody Powell. Marlin Fitzwater. Ari Fleischer. Those of us who are old enough have indelible memories of these men (and mostly men, although Dee Dee Myers, Dana Perino and now Sarah Huckabee Sanders have broken that mold) helping to shape our public understanding of the presidency, articulating the policies and programs of the presidents they served.

Press secretaries to the president of the United States are in a confined West Wing limbo in which it is almost impossible to make everyone happy. The back door to the press secretary’s ample office in the West Wing opens to a corridor in which the Oval Office is 50 feet to the right and the James Brady Briefing Room (named for another courageous occupant of the office) is 50 feet to the left.

It is a compelling geographic metaphor for the job. The press secretary is literally positioned equal distance between two primary actors in an adversarial relationship critical to the functioning of the American Republic: the presidency and its awesome executive power under the constitution, and the “Fourth Estate,” the independent free media which has its own First Amendment constitutional protection to “speak truth to power.”

Every president has chafed, moaned and groaned about unfair coverage in the press. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Some have taken out their frustrations in specific ways. In 1970, Richard Nixon moved the White House press corps from its location in what is now the Reception Room in the West Wing entrance (where every visitor could be observed and interrogated) to what used to be President Kennedy’s favorite indoor swimming pool, in the corridor that serves as a transit point between the Executive Mansion and the West Wing.

But ask any White House reporter and they will say, “We are penned and prevented from getting access to where we really want to be.” The press secretary must be a bridge between these two participants in an “adversarial relationship” that reflects political realities but that also honors the profession of journalism, which requires reporters to be skeptical, inquisitive and doubtful, but in the end, committed to giving the American people the truth they need.

For a president to commit war on “fake news” and for a press to respond with open hostility and belligerence to the elected president and his staff sends quite a troubling signal to those who simply want to know “What’s really going on?” This is, yes, an adversarial relationship, but it needs to be an amicable, professional one. That might be impossible with our current president. Yet it must surely be recovered for the presidents, their staffs and White House reporters of future generations.

What can we do? My first recommendation is to make the daily press briefing what it is supposed to be: an opportunity for the White House to advance its arguments and for journalists to have at least one opportunity to question those in power and hold them accountable. It is a briefing, not a news event that supplants daytime soap operas. Reporters should take what the White House says, consider it, test it against other sources, and then give us a report that moves us toward the truth.

Live televised briefings make the daily encounter a “show” in which reporters are expected to play roles. Let the briefing be recorded for broadcast later, but let the reporters use the information and gather additional input that will put White House “spin” in some perspective. I do not say that in response to current events. I was the one who allowed broadcast coverage of the daily White House press briefing and I did not impose any limits. So the “bad” is on me.

Next, cut the use of “senior administration officials” who brief anonymously on background. Everyone in Washington knows who is speaking but the vast American public is left guessing. People with information should stand up and be held accountable by name for what they say.

Yes, there are exceptions. Ambassador Dennis RossDennis Alan RossFears of 'What's next?' will influence Iran's — and the world's — reactions The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump has had a rough October Trump's aversion to alliances is making the world a more dangerous place MORE, one of the finest Middle East negotiators who served more than one president, explained to me that he could “brief” but what he said on background would offer “context” (his favorite word); if what he said was on the record, it would alter negotiating positions because those words would become official pronouncements of the U.S. government.

Similarly, Strobe Talbott, a former Time magazine writer who served as deputy secretary of State under Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment Political science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction Walsh plans protest at RNC headquarters over 'nakedly anti-Democratic' primary cancellations MORE, could offer nuanced, colorful “readouts” on meetings between Clinton and Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin — but only on background. When was the last time we could have “fun” reading about a meeting between a U.S. president and the leader of Russia?

In the main, however, we need more experts from the U.S. government to come to the briefing room and explain what they are trying to do on behalf of the American people. To credit the Trump folks, they have tried to do this. Given their current predicaments, it might be useful to have more “senior administration officials” stand up and tell us (under their own names) what is really going on.

“Leaking” and people telling tales out of school is usually a result of managerial malfunction, coming from folks in the policymaking process who feel their arguments were not properly considered. Or some folks leak just to demonstrate to reporters that they are likable and they’d like more publicity. Sometimes, anonymous “leaks” are from committed folks in our government who simply believe decision-making and common sense have gone off the rails.

It is the White House press secretary who has to help keep all the trains on the tracks. The press secretary sometimes has to explain the proclivities of a rambunctious press corps to colleagues, and defend those who talk anonymously to the press, then explain to a skeptical press corps why things are the way they are.

It is never an easy job. Yet it is an essential role. It requires, however, a president who comes to accept that reality. Will we ever get there with this president? If not, let’s start defining and respecting the importance of the White House press secretary for our next president.

Mike McCurry served as White House press secretary to President Clinton from 1994 to 1998. He is now a communications consultant and a partner at Public Strategies Washington. He teaches as a distinguished professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and is a member of the board of directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.