Can Jay Carney hack it as top flack?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The e-mail, coming from the Executive Office of the President and addressed to me, had a catchy subject line: "You are a hack."

This was tough - but accurate. I read on.

The body of the message began with the phrase "shamelessly misrepresented," continued on to refer to "your hackneyed storyline" and concluded: "Fabrication is a legitimate tool - for fiction. You should try it; it suits you."

The sender was one James F. Carney, then a spokesman for Vice President Biden, now the incoming White House press secretary. I mentioned the e-mail to colleagues and was surprised to learn that some of them, too, had received the occasional nastygram from Carney, sometimes graced with a barnyard epithet. Happily, these official White House correspondences will be stored for eternity in the National Archives, along with the Declaration of Independence.

I mention this not to discredit Jay Carney - we've moved on from that episode, and I think he's a solid choice to be the president's spokesman - but to discredit the notion that Carney will, by virtue of being a longtime journalist, automatically bring a new era of sunshine into the White House briefing room. If anything, he will be under intense pressure to prove to his new colleagues in the White House that he can be tough with his former colleagues in the press corps.

President Obama chose Carney in part as a peace offering to an aggrieved White House press corps that has spent two poisonous years with Robert Gibbs, to Obama's detriment. But if Carney and his bosses are not careful, the appointment could have the reverse of its intended effect.

Some have already begun to predict a transformation in White House press operations. Politico's Josh Gerstein called Carney's appointment "a radical departure" for the White House and "possibly a detente with the White House press corps." The New York Times' Michael Shear said "this is going to be a different approach" for the White House.

But this isn't necessarily the second coming of Mike McCurry, the beloved Clinton press secretary.

Yes, Carney has the advantage of following Gibbs, surpassed only by Ari Fleischer as the most unpopular press secretary of recent decades. On the podium, Gibbs often appeared to be attempting a revival of Mad magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions." Asked last week about the spread of Egypt's unrest, the spokesman replied that to answer "would be to dip my toe into the pool of generalization, which I'm certainly not going to do."

Off the podium, Gibbs infuriated reporters with his inconsistent availability; he left the impression he'd rather be in meetings strategizing with top Obama advisers than returning reporters' calls.

Obama himself recognized that his relationship with the news media was poor, and he held a series of off-the-record lunches in an attempt to repair damage. Top adviser Valerie Jarrett attempted a similar rapprochement. In choosing a successor to Gibbs, Obama made clear to subordinates that he wanted a more media-friendly replacement.

On paper, the 45-year-old Carney fits the part. He doesn't come from the war rooms of political campaigns, and his long career with Time, some of it on the White House beat, means he'll know how to do the care and feeding of reporters that his predecessor neglected.

But those who think the former Moscow correspondent will usher in an Obama glasnost could be disappointed. Carney, if he feels pressure to prove his loyalty to Obama, may be even more guarded with information. In fact, the preferred candidate of many in the press corps was Bill Burton, Gibbs's deputy. Burton, because of his unquestioned loyalty to Obama, may have been looser.

There's a suspicion among some of Carney's former colleagues that he's almost been set up to fail - much like Bill Clinton's first press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, who had the title of press secretary but none of the necessary clout. Not only does Carney report to communications director Dan Pfeiffer (a decade his junior) but so does everybody else in the press office.

Doubts about Carney's status were so pervasive that ABC's Ann Compton asked at Monday's press briefing whether Carney would get Gibbs's office, which is about 50 feet from the Oval Office. "I don't - I have not been told otherwise," was Gibbs's noncommittal response.

For the record, Carney will get the office. The question is whether Carney concludes that the way to keep it is to get tough with the hacks in the briefing room.

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