Prologue Magazine

Standing In for the President

Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2

By W. Dale Nelson

©1999 W. Dale Nelson

Jody Powell and Jimmy Carter Press Secretary Jody Powell with President Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. (Jimmy Carter Library)

On January 26, 1903, George Bruce Cortelyou, who had been President William McKinley's secretary, wrote a memo for the guidance of the new hands in Theodore Roosevelt's White House on the duties of a presidential secretary. The memo listed among those duties the care of the White House stables. It said nothing about the White House press corps.1

How things have changed. But even in the days of McKinley, Cortelyou's assessment was not entirely accurate. John Nicolay, the former Illinois editor tapped by President Abraham Lincoln to be his secretary, was called upon, much as modern presidential press secretaries have been, to separate the wheat from the chaff for journalists seeking guidance on stories. The editor of the monthly magazine The Century consulted him about "anecdotes, reminiscences, and other hints of startling disclosures." Nicolay's daughter and biographer, Helen Nicolay, said he would usually cast doubt on the stories and discourage their publication, but once in a while he would tell the editor they were interesting and important and should be published.

Cortelyou was described by McKinley biographer Margaret Leach as "the first of the presidential press secretaries."2 This is an overstatement, as Cortelyou handled other duties. Nevertheless, he provided reporters for the first time with work space in the executive mansion, briefed them on developments in the Spanish-American War, handed out news releases, and selected news items to bring to the President's attention.3 During presidential trips, he provided the traveling press corps with advance texts of McKinley's speeches and had stenographers take down his extemporaneous remarks.4

Joseph Tumulty performed similar duties for Woodrow Wilson, describing himself at one point as the "inexhaustible font of copy" for reporters covering the White House.5 But it was not until Herbert Hoover persuaded Congress to give him three presidential secretaries instead of one that one of them was specifically assigned to deal with the press. Both George Akerson and his successor, Theodore Joslin, were former newspapermen, as neither Cortelyou nor Tumulty had been. Both were also assigned to other duties in addition to press relations, but dealing with the press was their main chore. Joslin referred to himself as "the public relations secretary."6

Mike McCurry Mike McCurry, President Clinton's spokesman from 1995 to 1998, declared that the press secretary's role was "to be equi-distant between two combatants in this adversarial relationship." (White House Photo Office)

The evolution of what became the White House press office, from George Cortelyou to Mike McCurry, was gradual, but the change was profound. The White House press secretary does not have to worry about stables--except perhaps occasionally an Augean stable--but he does need to keep in mind constantly the needs of the press. He also needs to keep in mind that he works for the President. When Grover Cleveland was in Washington preparing to begin his second term, a journalist is said to have called on him and told him, "We have been hoping you would select a secretary who would be good to us newspaper men." Cleveland thought this over for a moment and said, "I had a notion to appoint somebody who would be good to me."7

The balance between serving the President and serving the press is a problem that faces all presidential spokesmen, whether the President be Grover Cleveland or Bill Clinton. Marlin Fitzwater, of the Reagan and Bush administrations, said the press secretary enters into combat with the press with one hand tied behind his back because he must serve two masters.8

The press does not have this handicap. Reporters work for only one master. Their objective is to get the story. But they, too, enter the fray with one hand tied behind their back. They don't have the information; they are trying to get it. The press secretary, they hope, either has it or has access to it.

The late Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic put the case well in an interview in 1976. "It's a game here in Washington," he said. "The executive has the sheep and we are the stealers--we're the poachers. We're trying to get the news and they are trying to keep it from us or select the news we get. And it's a game."9

Sometimes, the game is played for high stakes. On April 24, 1980, Jody Powell had a lesson in just how high they can be.

President Jimmy Carter's press secretary had known for months that the administration had a contingency plan for a mission to rescue the U.S. diplomats being held hostage in Iran. When President Carter asked him whether he thought he should attend a foreign policy breakfast at which the plan was being discussed, Powell said he believed he should. He said the secrecy of the mission would have to be protected, and that might involve misleading or lying to reporters. "If it did, I was the person to do it." Carter agreed, and Powell sat in on the meeting.

He was one of the few people in the White House who knew of the plan. When the President's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, was asked a question about it at a staff meeting, he denied that any rescue mission was being considered As rumors of the staff meeting circulated around Washington, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times called Powell and asked him whether any rescue attempt was in the works. Powell said no decisions had been made on any military move, and it would more likely be something like a blockade if undertaken.10

On the night of the failed rescue effort, in which eight American servicemen were killed and no hostages rescued, one of the first calls Powell made was to Nelson. "I just lied to you," he said.11 Nelson, recalling the conversation later, said, "I couldn't raise any really serious concern about that, because lives were at stake."12 Powell said he considered that in such a direct conflict between two obligations, his obligation to the national interest and the lives of American citizens outweighed his obligation to be truthful.13 Although a few reporters said Powell had destroyed his credibility, most agreed that his actions were justified.

President Carter's decision to keep Powell fully informed on the rescue mission is in sharp contrast to President Kennedy's treatment of his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, during two crises involving Fidel Castro's Cuba.

A few days before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told Salinger that he might be getting some inquiries about a military affair in the Caribbean. If he did, he was to say that he only knew what he read in the newspapers. As Salinger has said, this was saying quite a lot in April of 1961. There had been newspaper stories for some time suggesting that the U.S. training Cuban insurgents. Nevertheless, Salinger was told nothing of any of the meetings that led to the disastrous invasion. His first word came from George Herman of CBS, who called him at 6:30 in the morning and asked if he knew that Cuba had been invaded. When he got to the office, Salinger told reporters, "Our only information comes from the wire service stories we have read." After the invasion collapsed, Salinger went to the President and told him he would have to have more information if he was to do his job.14

He did not get it. When the Cuban missile crisis erupted, Kennedy told Salinger that top military and diplomatic officials would be visiting the White House during the week, but he was to deny to the press that anything special was going on. When he began getting inquiries about military preparations, he told Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell, "You're going to have to cut me in pretty quick. I'm flying blind with the press." For the most part, he continued flying blind. It was not until one day before the President's televised address to the nation on the subject that Salinger was given a briefing by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Twice the President's press secretary had to do a Cuban tango without having been taught any of the steps.15

There was a reason for the difference in the ways that Powell and Salinger were treated. Salinger had a solid reputation as an investigative reporter, but he was not a Kennedy insider. The roly-poly press secretary was regarded in his early days at the White House as something of a figure of fun. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., serving as a presidential assistant, summed up the spokesman's job in one sentence: "Pierre Salinger entertained the press with jocular daily briefings."16 Powell was jocular and entertaining, too, but he was also very close to Carter. He had been with him in his campaigning for Georgia governor, in the governor's office, and in his campaign for President. Carter once said, "Jody Powell knows me better than anyone else except my wife."17

The hostage rescue mission, the Bay of Pigs, and the missile crisis are dramatic examples of a presidential press secretary's conflicting responsibilities, They were literally matters of life and death. There is another example that seems on the surface trivial, but it is not.

Standing In for the President, Part 2

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.