The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A trove of letters passed down from White House press secretaries since the Ford administration has gone missing

In this 1975 photo, Ronald Nessen, President Gerald Ford’s press secretary, shows off the “flak jacket” that he wore to the morning news briefings. Nessen, who had been facing sharp questioning by the White House press corps, wore the protective clothing as a gag, and it’s been passed down to White House press secretaries in the decades since. (AP)

The jacket that’s for decades hung in the closet of the White House press secretary has carried many meanings. It’s called the “flak jacket,” though in reality it’s a men’s formal tuxedo vest with allegedly bulletproof lining that one former custodian suspected “wouldn’t deflect a BB,” as a nod to the job’s main hazard: taking incoming fire from the White House press corps.

It’s a mantle passed from one podium defender to the next, from administration to administration, regardless of party — a token of solidarity among the members of an exclusive club. And it literally held something special: each man or woman who wore it would leave a note in a pocket for his or her successor. The notes, recalled George W. Bush press secretary Dana Perino, remained with the vest, tied together with a red ribbon. Her favorite, she says, was a touching one from her predecessor, Tony Snow, who died of colon cancer in 2008.

But those missives are now missing. Emails among an informal press-secretary alumni club revealed that the notes that filled a pocket are nowhere to be found — and they’ve been gone for years.

It seems that they might have disappeared sometime during the Obama administration, according to some sleuthlike tracking by Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry: Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, recalls seeing the vest with a pocket full of notes. But his successor, Jay Carney, does not remember the notes. (Neither Carney nor Gibbs returned our emails.)

But that’s where the tradition appears to peter out. When Josh Earnest took over the gig from Carney in 2016, he found the vest, sans notes, hanging in the closet. “I walked into my new office to find a thoughtful, personal note from Carney laying on the otherwise bare desk,” he told us. “I left a similarly personal note on a similarly bare desk for [President Trump’s first press secretary Sean] Spicer.”

“I don’t recall ever having seen notes in the pocket of the vest, so I never had a reason to expect that Carney would leave his note there or that I should leave my note to Spicer anywhere other than the desktop,” he said.

The flak jacket itself has been lost — and found — before. Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s first press secretary, recalled that it wasn’t in his office when the Bush staff took over the West Wing on Jan. 20, 2001. Having heard about it, he looked for it to no avail and finally put out an APB during a press briefing. Turned out, its disappearance had nothing to do with the outgoing staff.

“A sheepish member of the White House permanent staff brought it back, explaining they thought it was an ordinary jacket left over by the previous administration, so they took it while cleaning up,” he said.

So there’s hope that the notes — whose content is by tradition only shared among its custodians — could resurface. And in our inquiries, we discovered what might be a clue as to what happened to them: Spicer tells us that the vest has a hole in a pocket, meaning the papers could have fallen out.

McCurry is fretting over the lost archive and has enlisted the help of the White House Historical Association to see whether the notes can be located. The tradition “speaks to the solidarity the club of those who ‘have been at the podium’ feel for each other,” he said. “Been there, done that, feel your pain even if we have served administrations that disagreed with each other.”