Former White House Press Secretary takes on SFSers in Gaston Hall
Former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney found himself once again on the receiving end of tough questions late Monday—except he had traded his familiar podium in the West Wing’s Briefing Room for Gaston Hall’s imposing lectern.
Brought to campus by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, Carney, who served as President Barack Obama‘s chief spokesman for three and a half years, began the evening by tracing his path to the White House—starting with his birth at Georgetown’s own Medical Center. He went on to speak about his nearly 20 years working at TIME before transitioning to an insider role in 2008, when he accepted the position of Director of Communications for the office of incoming Vice President Joe Biden.
While at TIME, Carney, who has a degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Yale, spent four years in Moscow covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. His last cover story for the magazine’s internal section, before he transferred to Washington in 1993, was about Ukraine, with a sidebar on the question of Crimea.
“Now, I wrote that thinking I’d never have to think about that again, but, you know, history happens in funny ways, so, there I was, talking about my experiences with Ukraine and Crimea in the West Wing of the White House twenty years later,” Carney said.
Carney emphasized that his background in journalism separated him from all past White House Press Secretaries save Jerald terHorst, fifteenth White House Press Secretary, who retired in moral protest when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Carney, the twenty-ninth press secretary, went so far as to say, “President Obama took a risk when he hired me.” Carney noted that most past press secretaries had been involved in politics or with their president personally, while Carney had spent many years as a reporter—even joking that media is often marked with a scarlet “E” for enemy.
The event then broke into a Q&A session, which Lecture Fund Chair Marcus Stromeyer (SFS ’15) characterized as an homage to Carney’s former job.
“The way I kind of thought about it was: he’s taken on the White House Press Corps; now, let’s see if he can take on Georgetown students,” Stromeyer said. Carney evidently relished the opportunity to let some SFS nerds stroke their egos, answering questions with candor and enthusiasm. He even extended the Q&A session for an extra half-hour.
Carney spoke at length about his close relationship with Obama. “What I think is interesting about our country, and says a lot about the president I served, is that I am a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Northern Virginia, and the person I felt closest to temperamentally and intellectually in the place I just worked was a guy named Barack Hussein Obama who was born in Hawaii,” he said.
Rather than being intimidated by the notoriously aggressive White House Press Corps, Carney felt his experience as a reporter gave him a certain appreciation for his often irascible media counterparts. “My belief is always that the day that the White House Press Corps stops complaining about access is the day we should worry about our democracy—you know if there is ever a day where they are happy, we’re screwed,” Carney said.
Carney noted that he was always comfortable speaking on the behalf of Obama and his policies, but never abandoned the journalist’s dogged commitment to the truth. Even under difficult circumstances he required that the administration provide him with the cold, hard, facts, unless the info was absolutely classified. “My view is always I’d rather know and then figure out how to answer the question than not know,” Carney said.
He did concede, however, a certain frustration with Obama’s professorial approach to answering questions. “Obama is also terrible with the short sound bite answer to a question,” Carney said. “That’s why he got his butt kicked in the first debate, that’s why in press conferences, he gave three paragraph answers instead of a sentence, and it wasn’t always what his press secretary wanted.”
Despite deeming his years at the White House as the most remarkable of his life, Carney resigned in May 2014 to focus on his family, prompted partially by Obama’s dedication to his own wife and daughters. “That perspective let me know that it was time because I have two young kids who need to see a little bit more of their father,” Carney said.
Describing the talk as “pretty impactful,” Stromeyer appeared pleased with the evening’s turnout. Looking ahead to future Lecture Fund events, he teased, “We have some cool people,” Stromeyer said, hinting at future Lecture Fund speakers. “I can’t say, just because the contract’s not signed yet. One of them I’m especially excited about because it’ll be very controversial.”
~~Ooh, so spooky.~~
Photo: Vox Populi