Four former White House Press Secretaries joined former CNN White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno at George Washington University last night for candid conversation.
Press secretaries from the Clinton administration – Dee Dee Myers (now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair) and Mike McCurry – joined Bush 43 press secretaries Dana Perino (now a FNC contributor) and Ari Fleischer at the university’s Lisner Auditorium. Another Clinton flack, Joe Lockhart, planned to attend, but couldn’t due to complications following surgery.
The event, broadcast on C-SPAN and P.O.T.U.S. radio, opened with remarks from CNN’s current White House correspondent, Ed Henry (he and Lockhart are fellows at GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs this year). Henry spoke about “sparring” with several press secretaries during his five years at the White House, and recounted a story about the late Tony Snow, who once lost his temper in a briefing and told Henry to “zip it.” The next day, they put it behind them. It’s important, he said, for the press secretary and the press corps to have a “healthy dose of respect” for one another.
With that, the press secretaries were introduced, and Sesno posed the first question: Was President Obama’s sit-down with Bill O’Reilly before the Superbowl a good idea or a bad one? All agreed it was a “great” idea. “Everyone in America’s in a good mood,” Perino said. Fleischer thought Obama “scored some points for going over to the lion’s den.”
McCurry, along with the rest of the panel, lamented allowing TV cameras in the briefing room, which he said had turned briefings into political theater and weren’t good for public discourse. “It was an idiot who allowed TV cameras” into the briefing room, he joked. (He was the one who first introduced the cameras.)
Each panelist spoke about the relationship the press secretary has with the press. You always see the press secretary defending the president, Perino said, but “you never see” him or her “defending the press to the president,” which is a big part of the job. Others agreed.
But the relationship isn’t always friendly. “Reporters play the aggressive role,” Fleischer said. He charged they also demand an unrealistic amount of access. “They won’t be satisfied till there’s Oval Office cam.” McCurry agreed: “They’re always bitching and moaning about something.”
A few specific reporters were mentioned…
Also: Find out what Perino thinks of AOL/HuffPost…
Perino called AP‘s Terry Hunt “the most powerful person in Washington,” and admitted she had gone to him for advice often. Fleischer said that slow news days were the hardest because he had to be prepped for questions on 15-20 topics, “including questions from Les Kinsolver,” which were always “interesting.” Fleischer said it’ll be interesting to see how Jay Carney performs as incoming Press Secretary, and called him “fast, smart on his feet, and good lookin’.”
One of the funnier moments of the night came when Myers talked about how her boss, Bill Clinton, would handle bad news: He’d take it all in and then “blow off steam” later. A collective smirk fell over the whole room for obvious reasons, and McCurry, smirking, said “Yeah…blow off some steam.”
Myers spoke of consulting for The West Wing. She said it was similar in culture to the Clinton White House, but acknowledged that no, not all national security decisions are made while walking through hallways.
But the line of the night goes to Perino. Asked about the AOL/HuffPost purchase, she said: “It’s whatever.”
C-SPAN has the entire discussion, just over 90 minutes, on their website. Watch it here.