Dissecting the job of a press secretary | Adele Ferguson

What does a press secretary do?

“Well,” Jody Powell once told me, “if you remember the circus parades that came through town in your youth, the scruffy guy at the tail end, with the half-pint in his back pocket and a bucket and a shovel for picking up after the elephants and horses, that guy was a press secretary.”

I’ve known a lot of press secretaries in my day, among them Jimmy Carter’s man Jody. All political writers do.

The press secretary is who you have to go through to talk to the politician you really want to connect with.

But this isn’t about presidents, it’s about press secretaries on account of the new book out by Scott McClellan, President Bush’s ex-press secretary, accusing his former boss of lying to get the country into a war, criticisms he didn’t see fit to make while on the job for three years, 2003-2006.

Most of my experience with the breed was with governors, where some press secretaries were terrific, some were not. One I will not name because he’s still around and I liked him even when I couldn’t trust him.

He had a buddy in the press corps in Olympia who worked for the Seattle Times and I soon noticed that when I was tracking a good story and went to the governor’s office for information, the story showed up in the Times ahead of me. I complained to one of the governor’s closest associates. He sympathized and said the only person who could do anything about it was the governor and he just couldn’t bring himself to fire him. The press secretary eventually got into some worse problems and was canned.

Press secretaries gild the lily.

Remember all those funny, folksy stories Gov. Booth Gardner used to tell, about how he was mistaken for other people and things his then-wife Jean said to him? Gardener didn’t make them up. Press secretary Jim Kneeland did.

If I needed a quote from Sen. Jackson and he was unavailable, his press secretary Brian Corcoran would give me one himself, using current remarks. He knew his man and could be trusted so I could live up to my claim, “if it’s got quotes around it, you said it.”

Some press secretaries went places. Anna Perez went from press secretary to Gov. Dan Evans and Congressman John Miller to First Lady Barbara Bush. Neil McReynolds was plucked from his job as an Evans press secretary to become one of the top executives of a $12 billion a year conglomerate International Telephone and Telegraph.

Ex-press secretary Jody Powell was a political columnist when he came out here in 1986, “like the fellow who spent most of his life as a doctor, and suddenly decided to become a disease,” he said. “Political columnists view conflict safely from afar and then come down out of the hills to shoot the wounded.”

Too many reporters sacrifice their ethical standards just to beat the competition to the story, he said, “and when they do that, their peers should expose them just as they kick the brains out of politicians who stray from the straight and narrow.

If your opponent is careless, insensitive, cavalier with the truth, by God say so.”

He admitted that as a press secretary he lied on occasion when he thought it was for the best, like refusing to confirm in advance the Iran rescue mission, and he’d do it again.

“Government does have a right, perhaps a responsibility, to lie in order to save lives and that sort of thing.”

But, he made clear, he still thinks a bucket and a shovel are the equipment needed when dealing with the national press, even though he has relegated himself to being a disease.

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