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The return of the White House press briefing

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — One of President Joe Biden’s first promises before taking office last week was to return the government’s business to normal practices after the erratic four years under Donald Trump. An important first step already as been taken in restoring regular White House briefings for the press, the better to inform the American public as well as giving reporters and news analysts the wherewithal to do their jobs with accuracy and responsibility.

That prospect has already been facilitated by the appointment of a seasoned press secretary in Jen Psaki, at 42 a veteran in the job for an Iowa governor and a senator, presidential nominee John Kerry, President Barack Obama (as deputy press secretary) and at the State Department before becoming communications director for the Biden-Harris campaign.

Psaki got off on the right foot by holding her first White House press briefing on inauguration night, taking questions, answering most, dodging a few and pledging to hold daily meetings with reporters.

“I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press,” she said, adding: “We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”

On the second day, she produced for questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president. A carryover from Trump’s administration, Fauci had a contentious relationship with the outgoing president, who finally barred him from talking to the press.

So far, so good. But the test will come if or when an issue arises that could lead the Biden administration to go into a defensive crouch.

The history of the White House press secretary has been in general a constructive one, but also dependent on the identity of the president and his press spokesperson.

The first secretary devoting full time to the press was FDR’s Stephen Early, editor of Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, over Roosevelt’s more than 300 meetings with the press.

Most were cordial affairs with banter exchanged with FDR in command, augmented by his famous radio fireside chats with the public. The cheery but acerbic Roosevelt would sometimes send a reporter to a corner for engendering the president’s disappointment or ire.

Roosevelt also invited members of the press into the Oval Office, and President John F. Kennedy later held full-blown press conferences at the State Department, overseen by his press secretary Pierre Salinger, who doubled as a key adviser.

Often rated the most effective White House press spokesman was James Hagerty, a crack New York Times political reporter who served President Dwight Eisenhower for eight years.

Close behind in reporters’ esteem later was James Brady, who was severely wounded in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The current White House press room is named for Brady.

Probably most detested of the fraternity was President Richard Nixon’s unwavering apologist and shill, Ronald Ziegler, earlier a tour guide at Disneyland.

I remember having, as a young reporter, a tense moment in a press conference with Eisenhower. I nervously conveyed a complicated question from a demanding editor, to which the old general again pleaded he would get the answer. By way of disowning authorship of the dumb query, I prefaced it by saying I had been instructed to ask it, to save face with my press brethren. Ike didn’t bother to reply then, either.

Biden’s appointment of Jen Psaki has marked a return to the practice of hiring a spokesperson of experience and congeniality, after a string of Trump incompetents and apologists. The first of them, Sean Spicer, set the stage by claiming his boss had the largest inauguration crowd ever, a claim easily refuted by photos and video of the event. Successors Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham and Kayleigh McEnany continued the practice of feeding distortions and outright falsehoods to the assembled ink-stained wretches.

Biden’s press secretary thus has a rather low hurdle to clear, with a White House press corps poised to give her a honeymoon. But the reporters also are obliged by journalistic imperative to hold her feet to the fire if she veers off the course she has set for herself of truth and accuracy in conveying the words and activities of the new man in the Oval Office and his administration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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