On behalf of the president: four factors affecting the success of the presidential press secretary.

Author:Towle, Michael J.
 
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In the fall of 1957, Journalism Review printed an article entitled "President Eisenhower and his Press Secretary," which examined "the more authoritative role" played by Eisenhower's press secretary, James C. Hagerty. After noting the able manner in which Hagerty managed the news conferences following Eisenhower's heart attack, the author of the article attempted to underscore his point by stating:

So adept was Hagerty's management of the news conferences which he held ...

that a national magazine did a "profile" of the press secretary to give

readers more information about the President's lieutenant.(1)

Thirty-four years later this statement seems out of place. But in 1957 it was indeed surprising that a national news magazine--in this case Newsweek--would profile the press secretary.

The brief span of time in which the press secretary has risen from obscurity to prominence is one indication of the importance of this post. Yet relatively little systematic research has been conducted about the presidential press secretary. The goal of this article is to examine the factors which lead to the successful performance of the presidential press secretary.

To measure "success" among political actors invites several problems for scholars. By what standards and from whose point of view is success measured?(2) This problem is exacerbated for those who seek to analyze presidential press secretaries, because presidents and the press may have very different ideas about what they seek in a press secretary. Consequently, one cannot simply evaluate such criteria as effectiveness at maintaining good presidential--press relations. Reporters might argue, for example, that those press secretaries who release the most information are successful. But a president like Nixon who distrusted the press and preferred to keep them uninformed would have a very different standard to judge a "successful" press secretary. One way to evaluate the performance of press secretaries is to assess the extent to which they have been considered effective by both their president and the press. Of course, these may be mutually exclusive possibilities. Nonetheless, some have succeeded by this standard.

This study begins with the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower because Eisenhower's press secretary, James C. Hagerty, is considered by the press to be the standard by which press secretaries are judged. Furthermore, it was during the Eisenhower years that the White House press office began to institutionalize along the structure that it maintains today.(3) This study ends with the presidency of Jimmy Carter because Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, operated his press office similar to Hagerty, and was similarly successful. Between the two presidencies were four other presidents served by seven different press secretaries. The varied relationships between these presidents and their press secretaries provide a fun range of examples for examination.

The historical record suggests that there are four factors which contribute to the success or failure of the presidential press secretary. This article examines the role these four factors played in the performance of the press secretaries from Eisenhower through Carter.

Four Crucial Factors

The first factor to examine is the importance of the press secretary to the administration. This can be ascertained by asking two questions. First, is the press secretary an "insider" or an "outsider" of the administration? Analyses of presidential administrations frequently include mention of the "top" or "senior" advisers. Stephen Hess has described the staff as consisting of "Inner Staff" and "Outer Staff," with the Inner Staff constituting (among other things) "those whose opinions are sought or who are given assignments on a wide variety subjects, especially in areas in which they are not expert."(4) Reporters are very sensitive to the status of the press secretary. One longtime White House correspondent has described it this way:

Faster than Einstein's light waves is the White House press corps when it

comes to knowing how a press secretary stands with the president. The

reporters sense the nature of the relationship immediately, and it governs

their dealings with the man on the podium.(5)

From the press's point of view, this is crucial for a press secretary, since this assures them that the press secretary understands the administration's positions. Second, the press secretary's role can also be ascertained by asking whether the press secretary is an adviser to the president. All press secretaries advise presidents on communications matters. But as illustrated below, some press secretaries have served in a wider capacity, actually advising the presidents on policy matters as well.(6) This is important because advisers may be better prepared to explain decisions in which they had direct input. It may also be advantageous to the president if the press secretary functions as an adviser who can provide insight into the way a particular action will be received by the press.

The second factor to consider is how the president permits the press secretary to disseminate information. Some presidents put fairly tight controls over what they allow their press secretaries to say (even if they are insiders and advisers); others allow them to interpret, elaborate, and expound on the president's thoughts. Herein, the former kind will be called a "mouthpiece"; the latter a "representative." Representative style press secretaries are a mixed blessing for reporters, because the added insight into the president's thoughts comes with the risk of having those thoughts misrepresented.(7)

The third factor sought is the respect accorded the press secretary by the president. Does the president allow the press secretary the leeway necessary to adequately fulfill the obligations of the post? Does the president act in such a way as to indicate that the press secretary does not have the administration's full confidence?

The fourth factor is the level of respect accorded the press secretary by the press. Numerous factors affect this, including the press secretary's knowledge, credibility, and organization. Obviously, reporters will more readily value the words of a press secretary that they respect.

James Hagerty: Success Model I

As noted above, Eisenhower's press secretary is often cited as the standard by which press secretaries are judged. To this day, reporters still speak of the legendary James Hagerty.

Hagerty was both an insider and an adviser to Eisenhower.(8) Hagerty's access to Eisenhower is especially noteworthy; he was one of the few people who had the privilege of calling on Eisenhower at any time.(9) Hagerty's posthumously published diary reveals his role in the administration; it includes entries about discussions with Eisenhower over such things as the McCarthyites in the Republican party(10) and Eisenhower's decision to seek reelection in 1956.(11) Hagerty also frequented the White House on a social level, and regularly attended "stag" dinners where politics could be discussed informally among peers.(12) Hagerty was reportedly instrumental in Eisenhower's eventual acceptance of full responsibility when an American U-2 spy plane was brought down over the Soviet Union; the White House story originally intended for release would not have revealed that Eisenhower had authorized the flight.(13)

Yet perhaps the most obvious indicator of the importance of Hagerty to the Eisenhower administration occurred at the time of the president's heart attack in 1955. Upon learning that he had suffered a heart attack, Eisenhower allegedly said, "Tell Jim to take over."(14) Hagerty emerged as the most important member of the administration until the immediate crisis passed. At first, Hagerty was on vacation, and the responsibility for the news rested with assistant press secretary Murray Snyder.(15) Snyder called Hagerty immediately after discovering the news and the two agreed to be forthright with the information.(16) It was Hagerty who informed Vice President Nixon of the crisis. Several hours later, Hagerty arrived in Colorado to brief the throngs of reporters who were gathering. For several days, Hagerty dealt with the situation by flooding the reporters with so much information about Eisenhower's condition that they were unable to partake in speculation.(17) Not only did Hagerty's performance engender respect and admiration from the press, but his able discussion of the president's health problems is credited with keeping open Eisenhower's plans for re-election in 1956.(18)

Hagerty clearly spoke for the president, and functioned as the president's representative. In the fall of 1957, an article in Journalism Quarterly observed that Eisenhower's press secretary spoke with "official sanction" To justify this claim, it noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt's twelve-year press secretary, Stephen Early, had never been cited in the State Department's Bulletin, while Hagerty's remarks had been published eleven times by September 1955.(19) Indeed, Eisenhower virtually forced the press to rely on Hagerty. Eisenhower began his presidency averaging less than one press conference every two weeks. Although high by today's standards, this was quite a shock to the reporters of the time, who were used to the Roosevelt/Truman average of nearly two press conferences per week. But the gap was filled by Hagerty, who held two press briefings per day.(20) Hagerty became the primary voice of the administration; other White House officials would regularly refer the press to Hagerty, who would also stop reporters before they managed to get to other possible sources. Hagerty was always considered well informed.(21)

The press had great respect for Hagerty, and Hagerty's memory remains legend among White House reporters. "He was the best presidential press secretary who ever lived,(22) Writes James Deakin, veteran White House reporter for the St. Louis...

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