The forces of democracy have been unleashed in the White House. White House reporters have a new press secretary, and Jay Carney is starting out well. At the same time, we reporters may have been inspired by events in the Middle East and Wisconsin. We have become more vocal in calling for followup questions and imploring Jay to recognize us, even if we do not have special seats in the front rows of the press room. Jay is also making an effort to recognize more reporters around the room -- even those of us who sit or stand along the wall (which I have been doing since 1968. I am in early photos, wearing big black boots, and look like Madame Defarge!)
Of course, spontaneous give-and-take is the way it should be, and is the way it has been for most of my career, until the later years of the last Bush administration. Then the pattern developed of recognizing reporters row by row in the White House press room. The front row reporters, in their assigned seats, got unlimited questions; the middle and back rows got crumbs. But Jay says he is making a greater effort to call on everyone, although not each day. He received applause after taking that vow, but qualified it by saying, "I love the front row." After all, that is where the superstars sit. But the rest of us now feel we will not be glared at, or ignored, if we shout out a follow-up question, or remind Jay we have not been called on.
So far, Jay has been very good in calling on foreign reporters in this time of crucial international turmoil. He is also wise to call on regional or "specialty" reporters, who may ask questions about topics the White House wishes to address. He may have also urged President Obama to grant exclusive interviews to some of those reporters. And the President held a hastily scheduled news conference the day prior to Jay's first briefing. There was not much news in it, but it was widely publicized in any case.
Jay has a charming, aw-shucks demeanor about him. He wanders onto the podium without fanfare. He must be nervous but does not show it. Rather, he appears to have been born to the job. But he had good training -- long years as a journalist, and then press secretary to Vice President Biden. He knows it is his job to serve the President and reflect the policies of the Administration. He is aware of the symbolic location of his historic office -- midway between the press arena and the Oval Office. But he also knows he is largely among friends. Many of us have known him for years, when he was a White House reporter. And that helps us all.
You may notice this article says relatively little about the President, and there is a reason for that. The press secretary is often the more quoted face and voice of the administration. They are the ones we have access to; the president is often a distant, tightly controlled figure to most of us.
I have covered many press secretaries and presidents since 1968. Some have been great, and many were mediocre. We all know it is a very tough job. But we hope Jay Carney will prove to be one of the great ones in these incredibly tough times ahead.