THE PLANK JANUARY 28, 2009
Yesterday, we asked President Bush's former press secretary, Scott McClellan, if he had any hard-won suggestions for Robert Gibbs.
My view is that the press-briefing model that is used now is kind of outdated. It ought to be more along the lines of the Pentagon briefing model, where you’re bringing in on a regular basis--maybe even two to three times a week--key officials from the White House or Cabinet secretaries to participate in these briefings and help educate the press and the public.
I think that too often in this day and age, because it’s live and on camera all the time, the press briefing becomes about bobbing and weaving and ducking instead of about educating and informing. A press secretary is only authorized to go so far. … Like right now, with the economy being at the forefront, bring in Larry Summers or Secretary Geithner on certain days when you’re trying to push forward a certain message there. We did it some; in hindsight, I wish we had done it even more. It benefits everybody.
It shouldn’t be put all on the press secretary in the first place. There will come times when there’s going to be controversy--I’ve certainly lived through it--and the burden will be put on the press secretary. There’s no reason it should be. If you’re going to have the counsel’s office setting a certain policy because of legal issues, then bring the counsel to the president out there and let him talk about it as well. That way, you’re giving the press access to those that are making those decisions, or at least very involved in pushing some of those decisions.
The job can get difficult. There are certainly plenty of examples in the past where people have been put in difficult positions when it comes to having to make almost a choice between serving the president and serving the public. I obviously worked for President Bush for seven and a half years or so and had a pretty close relationship with him. I think that the biggest key for Gibbs, and I think he has this commitment, is that he needs to have a commitment from the president that says, “Look, I can attend any meeting, any place, any time, that I so choose." I think that that’s important so that he can walk into any meeting he wants to kind of get a sense of things, to make sure that he knows the full background behind the policies and decisions, and also so that he knows the boundaries of how far he can and can’t go.
I had very good access, and I was in a lot of meetings, but not necessarily all of them. And if the press secretary ever feels like he’s in a tight spot, he can be candid with the press and just say, “I can’t go there. This is as far as I’m going to go. It’s as far as I’m authorized to go.” Place the burden elsewhere.
--As told to Amanda Silverman