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White House Press Secretary
|White House Press Secretary|
|White House Office of the Press Secretary|
|Appointer||President of the United States|
|Formation||March 4, 1929 (1929-03-04)|
|First holder||George Akerson|
|Website||White House Press Office Press Briefings|
The White House press secretary is a senior White House official whose primary responsibility is to act as spokesperson for the executive branch of the United States government administration, especially with regard to the president, senior aides and executives, as well as government policies.
The press secretary is responsible for collecting information about actions and events within the president's administration and issues the administration's reactions to developments around the world. The press secretary interacts with the media, and deals with the White House press corps on a daily basis, generally in a daily press briefing.
The press secretary serves by the appointment and at the pleasure of the president of the United States; the office does not require the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, though because of the frequent briefings given to the media, who in turn inform the public, the position is still a very prominent non-Cabinet post.
Early press relations
During the United States' somewhat early years, the White House staff or various White House offices were not as robust as they are today and there was not a single designated staff person or office responsible for managing the relationship between the president and the growing number of journalists and media entities that were covering him. It was not until after President Abraham Lincoln's administration that Congress formally appropriated funds for a White House staff, which at first consisted merely of a secretary. Ulysses S. Grant's White House staff officially numbered six people at a cost of $13,800, though he supplemented with personnel from the War Department. Fifty years later under the Coolidge administration, the staff had increased to just fewer than fifty people at a cost of nearly $100,000.
As presidents increasingly hired more staff, some showed a tendency to pick aides and confidantes who had backgrounds in the field of journalism. One of Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries, John G. Nicolay, had been an editor and owner of a newspaper in Illinois before he worked for the president in the White House. While the modern equivalent of a private or personal secretary to the president of the United States would be more narrowly concerned with the care and feeding of the president, the small size of the White House staff at that point meant that Nicolay interacted with the press occasionally in carrying out his duties. He was occasionally asked to verify stories or information that various members of the press had heard. Though the title and establishment of the roles and responsibilities of the press secretary job was still decades in the future, the small and growing White House staff was increasingly interacting with a growing number of professional journalists and mass media entities covering the president and the White House. Andrew Johnson was the first president to grant a formal interview request to a reporter, sitting down with Col. Alexander K. McClure from Pennsylvania. Although various presidents and reporters had participated in conversations or dialogues prior to Johnson, the exchanges had been less formal.
Cleveland and McKinley administrations
Prior to the 1880s and the presidency of Grover Cleveland, the relationship between the president, his administration, and the small but growing number of newspapers covering him was such that there was little need for a formal plan or designated spokesperson to manage it. The relationship between government and the press was not as inherently adversarial and arms length as in modern times. In fact, prior to the establishment of the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), some newspapers were awarded contracts to print government publications and often awarded the president with support in exchange. For example, the Gazette of the United States won an early U.S. Treasury contract and was supportive of then-president Washington. In general, though coverage of the president could be harsh and opinionated, newspapers were to some degree extensions of the political party apparatus and subsequently not seen as entities requiring specific, sustained management by the White House or administration.
The media had changed significantly by 1884, when Grover Cleveland was elected as president of the United States. Between 1776 and 1884, the United States had quadrupled in size and increased in population from 2.5 million to 56 million. The number of newspaper publications in active circulation had increased from 37 to more than 1,200 dailies, in addition to the many new monthly magazines. The rapid growth in journalism as a booming industry resulted in an increase in reporters covering the activities of the president.
Grover Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in 1886. The growing number of reporters and the increasing aggressiveness of their style of coverage led to frustrations when the president and his new bride were unable to rid themselves of reporters who followed them to their honeymoon in Deer Park, Maryland. President Cleveland relied on his private secretary, Daniel Lamont, who had once been an editor of the Albany Argus, to keep the reporters at bay. The controversy surrounding coverage of the trip resulted in a public debate about the balance between the right of the president and his family to privacy and the role of the press in covering the country's most public figure. In an editorial, the New York World defended the right of the press to cover the president at all times:
The idea of offending the bachelor sensitiveness of President Cleveland or the maidenly reserve of his bride has been far from anybody's thought...We must insist that the President is public property; that it is perfectly legitimate to send correspondents and reporters to follow him when he goes on a journey, and to keep watch over him and his family.
White House press corps
At the end of the Cleveland administration, a new feature of press coverage of the White House materialized. William W. Price, a southern reporter, auditioned for a job at the Washington Evening Star by stationing himself at the White House to seek out stories. He interviewed guests coming and going from meetings or events with the president and ultimately reported a story in a piece carrying the headline "At the White House". Competitor newspapers responded by sending their own reporters to cover the White House in a daily, sustained way and soon the White House had reporters dedicated to covering the "White House beat." Some point to this as the early origins of a more formal White House Press Corps.
When President Cleveland was elected to a second, non-consecutive term in 1893, George B. Cortelyou, formally trained as a stenographer, was named confidential stenographer at the White House and later named executive clerk. Though he was not given the formal title of private secretary to the president until later and the term press secretary had not yet been conceived, Cortelyou was highly respected by the press and William McKinley's biographer, Margaret Leach, called Cortelyou "the first of the presidential press secretaries". President Cleveland's successor, William McKinley, kept Cortelyou on during the transition and later formally named him private secretary to the president, though he had been informally doing the job for some time prior. Under McKinley, Cortelyou became notable for his popularity with journalists covering the White House. The correspondents relied on him for information and his tenure as private secretary was noteworthy for some of the same working traits modern press secretaries have become popular for, including providing information to reporters later in the evening if events had transpired in the afternoon, offering advance copies of remarks prepared for the president, and ensuring reporters received transcripts of unprepared remarks made by the president while traveling, which were recorded by a stenographer. Cortelyou also circulated noteworthy stories to the president and other staffers (by this point the White House staff numbered approximately 18), which is similar to the exhaustive news summaries formally distributed to the White House staff in the modern era. The nascent press corps' appreciation for Cortelyou's responsiveness is similar to how a modern White House press secretary's responsiveness to the press corps can shape their positive or negative view of him or her.
Working space in the White House for the press corps
The White House "beat" concept that had been started during the Cleveland administration by reporter William Price was continued during the McKinley administration. Around the time of the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in 1898, the reporters covering the White House were invited into the mansion itself and provided with space to write, conduct interviews, and generally cover the White House. Now reporting from inside the White House, the reporters used their new location to interview guests entering or leaving the White House or confirm pieces of information from the president's secretaries as they passed through in the course of their duties. Reporters working in the White House did, however, honor an unspoken rule and refrain from asking the president himself a question if he happened to walk through their working area.
The long-term presence of the White House Press Corps in the White House was cemented by Theodore Roosevelt, who asked that planners include permanent space for the press corps in the executive office building now called the West Wing, which he had ordered built in the early 1900s. It is the West Wing that ultimately housed the Office of the Press Secretary and the now-famous James S. Brady press briefing room, which was redone by the George W. Bush administration in 2007.
Woodrow Wilson administration
When Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, he asked Joseph P. Tumulty to serve as his private secretary. When he was elected president two years later, he brought Tumulty with him to the White House, where Tumulty served as private secretary to the president. As private secretary, Tumulty dealt extensively with the press. At the outset of the administration, Tumulty convinced Wilson, who was known for his distaste of the press, to hold news conferences on a regularized schedule, sometimes as much as twice every week. During the first such news conference, over one hundred reporters crowded into Wilson's office to ask him questions. Wilson often requested that reporters not publish answers given in these settings and on one occasion threatened to cancel the news conferences when a reporter revealed comments he had given regarding Mexico. The press conferences were later discontinued after the sinking of British liner Lusitania, and despite attempts to revive them during his second term were held only sporadically during Wilson's final years in office.
Joseph Tumulty also put into place a more regular schedule of briefing the press. He gave daily briefings to the press in the morning, which were attended by as many as thirty reporters. By formalizing the press briefing process, Tumulty laid the groundwork for what would later be called the White House Press Briefing. Tumulty also worked to clarify embargo rules for the press, ordering that the exact time a press embargo was lifted be noted on the confidential information that was being released.
Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover administrations
Despite being nicknamed "Silent Cal", many reporters covering the White House found President Calvin Coolidge to be fairly accessible once he took office in 1923 following the death of President Warren G. Harding. During his over five years in office, Coolidge held approximately 520 press conferences, which averaged out to nearly 8 per month. The term "White House spokesman" was used extensively for the first time during the Coolidge administration, as press conference rules mandated that reporters could attribute quotes or statements only to a "White House spokesman" and not directly to the president himself. Some have said that this practice was a precursor to the more modern use of "senior administration official" offering statements or quotes not directly attributable to a specific person, which was used frequently by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration.
When Herbert Hoover assumed the presidency in 1929, he brought his longtime aide George E. Akerson to Washington with him as his private secretary. Akerson did not have the formal title of "press secretary", but was the designated person to speak on behalf of President Hoover. Hoover asked the White House Correspondents Association to form a committee to discuss matters pertaining to coverage of the White House and formalized news conferences, dividing presidential news into three different categories:
- Announcements directly attributable to the president of the United States,
- Statements attributable to official sources, but not to the president himself, and
- Background information for the reporter's knowledge but not specifically attributable to the president nor the White House
George Akerson continued the tradition of meeting daily with reporters, and though usually of jovial temperament, was not known for the precision that was the hallmark of some of his predecessors, such as Cortelyou. On one occasion, he incorrectly stated that sitting Supreme Court justice Harlan Stone had been elevated to be chief justice, only to have to issue a statement later that the actual nominee was Charles Evans Hughes. Akerson also struggled at times with his role in a growing White House staff. Akerson was one of three secretaries to the president, and some speculated that Hoover's closeness to his other secretary, Lawrence Richey, a former detective and Secret Service agent, made it difficult for Akerson to obtain the kind of information he needed to effectively do his job. As poor coverage made President Hoover appear detached and out of touch amidst a worsening depression, Richey and Akerson disagreed about the most effective press strategy, with Akerson promoting the idea that Hoover should leverage the increasingly influential platform of radio, and Richey arguing that the radio strategy was not worthy of the presidency. Akerson resigned not long thereafter, and Theodore Joslin, a former reporter, was named as the new secretary. Relations between the Hoover administration and the press continued to decline.
Roosevelt administration, Steve Early, and the first "White House press secretary"
During the administration of presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, journalist Stephen Early became the first White House secretary charged only with press responsibilities. The manner in which Early approached his portfolio and increasingly high-profile nature of the job have led many to state that Early is the first true White House press secretary, both in function and in formal title. Prior to joining the Roosevelt campaign and administration Early had served as an editor to the military paper Stars and Stripes and also as a reporter for the Associated Press. When Roosevelt was nominated on James Cox's ticket as the vice presidential nominee in 1920, he asked Early to serve as an advance representative. As an advance representative, Early traveled ahead of the campaign, arranged for logistics and attempted to promote positive coverage for the candidates.
When President Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932, he chose Early to be his secretary responsible for handling the press, or as the role was becoming known, "the press secretary." After accepting the job, Early laid out for Roosevelt his vision of how the role should be conducted. He requested having unfettered access to the president, having his quotes and statements directly attributable to him as press secretary, and offering as much factual information to the press as it became available. He also convinced Roosevelt to agree to twice-weekly presidential press conferences, with the timing of each tailored to the different deadline schedules of the White House Press Corps. Early also made himself available to the press corps as often as he could, and though he was not known for a lighthearted or amiable demeanor, he earned a reputation for responsiveness and openness, even having his own telephone number listed unlike some of those who held the job after him.
Despite the unpopularity of press conferences by the end of the Hoover administration, Roosevelt continued the tradition. He did away with written questions submitted in advance and mandated that nothing he said in press conferences could be attributed to him or the White House, but was instead intended for reporters' general background information. Many reporters found this helpful as it allowed the president to be forthright and candid in his assessments and answers their questions. Unlike some of his predecessors who filled the role, Early routinely prepared Roosevelt for press conferences, bringing the president's attention to issues that might come up, suggesting the appropriate answers, and even planting questions or issues with certain reporters. Press conferences also began a tradition where the senior wire reporter concludes the session by stating, "Thank you, Mr. President", signaling that the time for questioning is over, a tradition that continues today. Roosevelt held well over 300 press conferences during his first term.
Though some reporters were unsatisfied with the amount of real news or new information they were getting from the press conferences, the Roosevelt administration under Early's leadership was considered by many to be effective at managing the White House's relationship with the press. During the administration, U.S. News reported that "The machinery for getting and giving the news runs about as smoothly as could be wished from either side."
The Roosevelt White House was also marked by a significant increase in the number of White House staff supporting the president and bureaucracy in general, largely as a result of increased New Deal funding. Early was criticized at times for attempting to closely manage press officers at various department and agencies across the government, and gave out a number of such jobs to journalists who he knew, instead of party loyalists who had traditionally received such appointments. A congressional investigation several years later revealed that across government, fewer than 150 employees were engaged in public relations along with an additional 14 part-time workers. This is a significant increase given that White House staff numbered at 11 in total when Roosevelt took office.
Early was involved in Roosevelt taking advantage of the radio medium through his fireside chats, an idea some say he got from George Akerson who had unsuccessfully tried to convince President Hoover to do something similar. Early also came under fire for the rules surrounding African American journalists not being allowed to attend presidential press conferences. Some have said that Early used enforcement of the standing rule, which had been to only allow regular Washington journalists to attend the press conferences, to deny press conference access to black reporters. Since many if not most black publications at the time were weeklies, they were restricted as a result of the rules. When African American reporters from daily publications requested access to the conferences, Early reportedly told them to seek accreditation from Capitol Hill press officers, which was another sometimes insurmountable challenge. African American reporters did not gain formal approval to attend White House news conferences until 1944.
Early's tenure as press secretary was also marked by stringent restrictions on photographers, largely aimed at hiding the severity of FDR's polio and worsening immobility. Photographers were not permitted to be closer than 12 feet of FDR, or 30 feet in larger events.
As a result of the increasingly high-profile nature of the job and Early's sole responsibility of managing the White House press operations, it was during the Roosevelt administration that Early and the position he held began to be formally referred to as the press secretary. As a result, many point to Steve Early as the first White House press secretary.
Eisenhower administration, James Hagerty, press secretary role evolves
As a candidate for president, Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped James Hagerty, a former reporter for the New York Times, to be his press secretary. Hagerty had previously been press secretary for New York governor Thomas E. Dewey during his two tries for the presidency. After he won election, Eisenhower appointed Hagerty to be White House press secretary.
Hagerty's experience as a journalist helped him perform his role more effectively: "Having spent years as a reporter on the other side of the news barrier, he was not blinded to the reporter's dependence on deadlines, transmission facilities, prompt texts of speeches and statements and the frequent necessity of having to ask seemingly irrelevant and inconsequential questions", wrote John McQuiston in the New York Times".
At Hagerty's first meeting with White House reporters on January 21, 1953, he laid down ground rules that are still largely a model for how the press secretary operates. He said:
- I would like to say to you fellows that I am not going to play any favorites, and I'm not going to give out any exclusive stories about the president or the White House.
- When I say to you, 'I don't know,' I mean I don't know. When I say, 'No comment,' it means I'm not talking, but not necessarily any more than that.
- Aside from that, I'm here to help you get the news. I am also here to work for one man, who happens to be the president. And I will do that to the best of my ability. 
The practice of regularly scheduled presidential news conference was instituted during the Eisenhower administration. Hagerty abolished the longstanding rule that the president could not be directly quoted without permission—for the first time, everything that the president said at a press conference could be printed verbatim.
In 1955, during the Eisenhower administration, newsreel and television cameras were allowed in presidential news conferences for the first time.
When President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in Denver in September 1955, and underwent abdominal surgery the following year, Hagerty brought news to the nation in a calm and professional manner. "His performances in both crises won him more respect from newsmen than any presidential press secretary in memory", said a New York Times writer.
Hagerty remained press secretary for eight years, still the record for longest time served in that position. Eisenhower grew to trust Hagerty to such a degree that the role of press secretary was elevated to that of a senior advisor to the president.
By late 2019, President Donald Trump had created a new style of communications to the public that bypassed the Press Secretary and relied on his own direct speaking and tweets. According to a report in Politico:
- He prefers to issue major announcements himself over social media, whether policy moves or staff firings. He killed the daily White House briefing, preferring the messy practice of fielding reporters’ shouted questions from the Oval Office or before his presidential helicopter. As Year Three of his presidency closes out, Trump has built his style of communicating around the pillars of political grievances, conspiracy theories and targeting perceived enemies. Most of all, he prefers to dictate and dominate the news cycle. 
Dissimulation and spin
"Spin" is giving out true facts but putting an emphasis on the positive. Dissimulation is giving deliberately distorted or false information. Jody Powell under Carter deliberately lied about the planned rescue mission of US hostages in Iran in 1980. Pierre Salinger under Kennedy was deliberately kept ignorant of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis in 1961. Larry Speakes under Reagan released quotes he attributed to Reagan but which Speakes had invented or reworded.
Michael J. Towle weighs four factors determining the success and popularity of all seven press secretaries 1953 to 1980. Experts generally agree that James C. Hagerty, under Eisenhower, set the standard by which later press secretaries are judged. Under Carter, Jody Powell followed the Hagerty model, and was also judged successful. For Towle the first factor is the importance and centrality of the press secretary to the administration. Insiders who participate in high-level decision making do better at explaining policy; the press has less confidence in outsiders, Towle concludes. The second factor is how tightly the office is controlled by the president. The media pays more attention to secretaries who are allowed to elaborate, and expound on the president's thoughts, and answer probing questions. Third, does the president signal confidence in the press secretary. Fourth is the respect the secretary has won from the press in terms of knowledge, credibility, clarity, promptness and ability to provide information on a wide range of policies.
Towle concludes that history had judged Hagerty and Salinger as successful. Lyndon Johnson confided in Salinger but distrusted the media and hobbled his next three press secretaries. Nixon throughout his career saw the press as the enemy, and the media responded in hostile fashion, leaving the young inexperienced Ronald Ziegler with a hopeless challenge. President Ford's first secretary was Jerald F. terHorst – he resigned in protest when Ford pardoned Nixon. Next came Ronald Nessen, who quickly acquired a reputation as inept, uninformed or noncredible, especially on foreign affairs. At the opposite extreme, the successful Jody Powell had been a close advisor to Carter for years, and could explain clearly how the president reasoned about issues. Carter said he "probably knows me better than anyone except my wife."
The press secretary is responsible for collecting information about actions and events within the president's administration and around the world, and interacting with the media, generally in a daily press briefing. The information includes items such as a summary of the president's schedule for the day, whom the president has seen, or had communication and the official position of the administration on the news of the day.
The press secretary traditionally also fields questions from the White House press corps in briefings and press conferences, which are generally televised, and "press gaggles", which are on-the-record briefings without video recording, although transcripts are usually made available.
The position has often been filled by individuals from news media backgrounds:
- Roosevelt administration – Stephen Early, a reporter for United Press International and correspondent for The Associated Press.
- Truman administration – Jonathan W. Daniels, a newspaper man who was in the Franklin Roosevelt administration in multiple agencies and on various boards just prior to becoming press secretary; Charlie Ross, a journalist who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; Early; Joseph Short, a newspaper man; and Roger Tubby, a reporter and editor turned Democratic National Committee spokesman before becoming White House press secretary
- Eisenhower administration – James C. Hagerty, a reporter for the New York Times
- Kennedy administration – Pierre Salinger, a reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle
- Johnson administration – appointed George Christian, a reporter for International News Service and PBS commentator Bill Moyers
- Ford administration – appointed Jerald terHorst, a newspaper veteran; and Ron Nessen, an NBC News correspondent
- Reagan administration – Larry Speakes, a newspaper man; and Marlin Fitzwater, a newspaper man
- George H. W. Bush administration – Marlin Fitzwater
- George W. Bush administration – Tony Snow, a veteran journalist and Fox News anchor
- Obama administration – Jay Carney, Time magazine journalist.
List of press secretaries
|#||Officeholder||Tenure start||Tenure end||Tenure duration||President|
|1||George E. Akerson||March 4, 1929||March 16, 1931||2 years, 12 days||Herbert Hoover|
|2||Theodore Joslin||March 16, 1931||March 4, 1933||1 year, 353 days|
|3||Stephen Early||March 4, 1933||March 29, 1945||12 years, 25 days||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|4||Jonathan W. Daniels||March 29, 1945||May 15, 1945||47 days|
|Harry S. Truman|
|5||Charlie Ross||May 15, 1945||December 5, 1950||5 years, 204 days|
|December 5, 1950||December 18, 1950||13 days|
|6||Joseph Short||December 5, 1950||September 18, 1952||1 year, 288 days|
|7||Roger Tubby||September 18, 1952||January 20, 1953||124 days|
|8||James Hagerty||January 20, 1953||January 20, 1961||8 years, 0 days||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|9||Pierre Salinger||January 20, 1961||March 19, 1964||3 years, 59 days||John F. Kennedy|
|Lyndon B. Johnson|
|10||George Reedy||March 19, 1964||July 8, 1965||1 year, 111 days|
|11||Bill Moyers||July 8, 1965||February 1, 1967||1 year, 208 days|
|12||George Christian||February 1, 1967||January 20, 1969||1 year, 354 days|
|13||Ron Ziegler||January 20, 1969||August 9, 1974||5 years, 201 days||Richard Nixon|
|14||Jerald terHorst||August 9, 1974||September 9, 1974||31 days||Gerald Ford|
|15||Ron Nessen||September 9, 1974||January 20, 1977||2 years, 133 days|
|16||Jody Powell||January 20, 1977||January 20, 1981||4 years, 0 days||Jimmy Carter|
|17||James Brady1||January 20, 1981||March 30, 1981/
January 20, 1989
|69 days/8 years, 0 days||Ronald Reagan|
|March 30, 1981||February 1, 1987||5 years, 308 days|
|February 1, 1987||January 20, 1993||5 years, 354 days|
|George H. W. Bush|
|January 20, 1993||June 7, 1993||138 days||Bill Clinton|
|19||Dee Dee Myers2, 3||January 20, 1993||December 22, 1994||1 year, 336 days|
|20||Mike McCurry||December 22, 1994||August 4, 1998||3 years, 225 days|
|21||Joe Lockhart||August 4, 1998||September 29, 2000||2 years, 56 days|
|22||Jake Siewert||September 30, 2000||January 20, 2001||112 days|
|23||Ari Fleischer||January 20, 2001||July 15, 2003||2 years, 176 days||George W. Bush|
|24||Scott McClellan||July 15, 2003||May 10, 2006||2 years, 299 days|
|25||Tony Snow||May 10, 2006||September 14, 2007||1 year, 127 days|
|26||Dana Perino||September 14, 2007||January 20, 2009||1 year, 128 days|
|27||Robert Gibbs||January 20, 2009||February 11, 2011||2 years, 22 days||Barack Obama|
|28||Jay Carney||February 11, 2011||June 20, 2014||3 years, 129 days|
|29||Josh Earnest||June 20, 2014||January 20, 2017||2 years, 214 days|
|30||Sean Spicer||January 20, 2017||July 21, 2017||182 days||Donald Trump|
|31||Sarah Sanders||July 26, 2017||July 1, 2019||1 year, 340 days|
|32||Stephanie Grisham4||July 1, 2019||present||230 days|
1Brady formally retained the title of press secretary until the end of the Reagan administration in 1989, but he did not brief the press after he was shot in the 1981 assassination attempt. Speakes and Fitzwater served as de facto press secretaries.
2Stephanopoulos briefed the press during his tenure as director of communications, despite Myers formally holding the title.
3First female press secretary.
4Grisham, unlike her predecessors, has never held a formal White House press briefing.
- Rogers, Katie; Karni, Annie (2019-06-25). "Trump Names Stephanie Grisham, Aide to First Lady, as White House Press Secretary". The New York Times.
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