Commentary Magazine


The Slow-Motion Meltdown of the President’s Press Secretary

Most commentators agree congressional Republicans would be blamed for the consequences if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. This morning, Matt Lewis has a post reminding readers why the GOP is at such a disadvantage: the mainstream media will blame the GOP; the Republicans have a branding problem on these issues since they appear to strongly dislike government and the entitlement checks it writes; and the president is a Democrat, so his party has the bully pulpit.

He’s right, of course, though it seems at times the White House is trying to lose that last advantage. Press Secretary Jay Carney has been an even less amiable spokesman than his predecessor, Bob Gibbs. Fresh off telling MSNBC’s Chuck Todd he was parroting Republican talking points by asking what the president’s plan was, Carney has dusted off the old “Republicans are Nazis” insult in what I can only imagine was an attempt to alienate as many people as possible. Lewis’ colleague Neil Munro reports:

Without ready cash to pay for every government program, he said at the White House’s daily press conference, “It’s a Sophie’s Choice. Who do you save? Who do you pay?”

‘Sophie’s Choice’ refers to a 1982 movie that depicts a Jewish mother being forced to choose which one of her two children should be saved from one of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist death-camps.

And Carney repeated the comparison later in the briefing, which means it was his talking point of the day. Carney’s bizarrely angry daily performances probably make most of those reporters in the briefing room wish the Democrats had someone like Tony Snow, the affable press secretary in George W. Bush’s second term.

In 2006, Newsweek reported an exchange between Snow and Helen Thomas after Thomas accused the U.S. of bankrupting the Palestinians by refusing to give financial aid to Hamas. Snow responded that Hamas is a terrorist organization:

“They were democratically elected,” Thomas insisted.

“They were democratically elected, and they’re still a terrorist organization,” Snow replied.

“By your designation,” Thomas snapped.

“Yes, thank you very much, Helen,” Snow shot back.

That could have been a scene straight out of one of Scott McClellan’s combative press briefings, if it weren’t for what happened next. From the podium, Snow looked down at Thomas sitting in her front-row seat and noticed the veteran reporter was clutching a shiny red apple.

“By the way, that’s a nice apple,” Snow grinned.

“Here,” Thomas instantly replied, offering the new press secretary her apple.

As the press room erupted in laughter, Snow dramatically leapt from the podium and grabbed the apple, placing it front and center on the lectern. “Whoever thought that Helen Thomas would kiss up to me,” Snow said, laughing. “An apple for the teacher.”

“Hardly!” Thomas shouted from the front row. But she was smiling–and so was every other reporter in the room.

This was typical of Snow. Those who had the pleasure of interacting with Snow–as I did–were well aware of his almost preternatural ability to light up a room, even while he was suffering from cancer. Despite the way the press felt about his boss, when Snow stepped down from his post, the mostly liberal reporters behaved as if they were losing their best friend. “Thank you, Tony. I will really miss you,” said one reporter. “God bless you,” said another.

And now they have Jay Carney. The administration’s thin skin has come to define its interactions with the public, the opposition and the press. If the Nazi references keep flowing from the White House, owning the bully pulpit will not be much of an advantage for the Democrats.