The death this week of Carter Administration press secretary Jody Powell got me thinking about how he (and Jimmy Carter) fashioned the all important White House job.
Say what you will about the Carter Administration (I believe history will treat the one-term Georgian better than many contemporaries) Powell played the high profile role of press secretary just about right, I think. He was the rare press secretary who successfully mixed the duties of trusted advisor to the president with the ringmaster role of daily care and feeding of the White House press corps.
Franklin Roosevelt and his “secretary” Steve Early, invented the modern White House press operation and Powell played very much the same role in working with his president as Early did with FDR. (By the way, there is a fine recent book about Early and the key role he played – virtually deputy president to FDR – called The Making of FDR : The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary.)
Current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have the same portfolio – advisor and spokesman. It is a much different approach, and a better approach I think, than either of the Presidents Bush used or than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton employed.
In the Steve Early, Jody Powell, Robert Gibbs model, the press secretary serves as advisor first, presidential flack second. The Clinton and Bush models seemed at times to be designed to make certain the press secretary knew as little as possible in the interest of never being able to really speak with authority for the president.
My long-time friend and business partner, Chris Carlson, knew and worked with Jody Powell during the Carter presidency. Chris ran the public affairs shop at the Department of the Interior for then-Secretary Cecil Andrus.
I asked him for a couple of anecdotes about Powell, the irreverent Georgia boy who with Hamilton Jordan, helped engineer Carter’s improbable presidential campaign in 1976.
“Yes, they had an irreverent attitude towards the ways of D.C., as did my then boss the incoming administration’s new Interior Secretary. Like Secretary Andrus, both Jordan and Jody actually placed their own phone calls rather than play the D.C. game of having a secretary place the call and see whose boss acknowledged the pecking order by getting on the phone first.
“Powell had little time for such games, and though he had a temper he also had a great sense of humor, could laugh at himself, the pretensions of the press and the absurdities of power politics. In the four years of the Carter Presidency he somehow managed to keep that sense of humor and he also recognized and respected what an asset Governor Andrus was to the President.
“When one of the most critical decisions involving Interior’s future had to be made, and Secretary Andrus had to go meet with the president and the inner circle of advisors – the Georgia mafia – to tell them the president’s long cherished goal of creating a new Department of Natural Resources had to be abandoned for lack of key political support, it was Jody Powell who weighed in first behind the secretary’s political judgment and helped to persuade a dubious president to see the wisdom of cutting his losses.
“Bottom line, Jody Powell was that rarity of rarities in D.C., a self-effacing, decent person who radiated intelligence and integrity, did a difficult job well and succeeded in part because of his basic decency and humanity. There aren’t many like him.”
As the New York Times noted in his obituary: “Mr. Powell had honed his style years before, when Mr. Carter was governor. Responding to a critic who accused his boss of “communistic” tactics against opponents of the busing used to desegregate schools, Mr. Powell wrote that one of a governor’s burdens was having to read ‘barely legible letters from morons.’
“’I respectfully suggest that you take two running jumps and go straight to hell,’ he continued.”
I can assure you that is something every press secretary has wanted to say.