7 facts about White House press secretaries
In replacing Jay Carney in front of the media today, Josh Earnest becomes the 30th presidential press secretary since the post was created 85 years ago, according to Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar, a leading expert and author on White House communications.
As the guard changes at the press room podium, Kumar helped Pew Research put together this collection of historical facts and figures about those whose job it is to position themselves—sometimes as a conduit, sometimes as a shield—between the commander in chief and the Fourth Estate.
1The first man to officially hold the post of press secretary was George Akerson, who served President Herbert Hoover from March 1929 until February 1931. While other presidential secretaries helped to brief reporters, Akerson was the first whose only responsibilities involved dealing with the media.
2The longest-serving press secretary was Steve Early, who worked for President Franklin Roosevelt for 12 years, from March 1933 until March 1945. (He left the post shortly before Roosevelt died.) Only five other press secretaries served for the entirety of their boss’ stay in the White House: James Hagerty, who served under Dwight Eisenhower; Pierre Salinger for John Kennedy; Ronald Ziegler for Richard Nixon; Jody Powell, for Jimmy Carter; and, Marlin Fitzwater, who had the job during Ronald Reagan’s last two years in office and afterwards was the sole press secretary for George H.W. Bush.
3There have been two women who have served as press secretary. Dee Dee Myers was Bill Clinton’s first press secretary serving during the period Jan. 20, 1993 – Dec. 31, 1994. Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s fourth and final press secretary, was press secretary from Aug. 31, 2007, until the end of the administration on Jan. 20, 2009.
4Two press secretaries served a month or less in the post. Jonathan Daniels served Franklin Roosevelt from March 24, 1945, until the president died on April 5. He stayed on when Harry Truman assumed the presidency until Charles Ross came in the next month. Jerry terHorst served only one month for Gerald Ford, from Aug. 9 until Sept. 8, 1974. It’s worth noting that Steve Early, who spent a dozen years working for Roosevelt, actually returned briefly (for about two weeks) to work for Truman in 1945.
5Several press secretaries went directly from a journalism job to the White House: Theodore Joslin (Boston Evening Transcript) for Herbert Hoover; Stephen Early (Paramount News and Associated Press and United Press before that) for Franklin Roosevelt; Charles Ross (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) for Truman; Joseph Short (Baltimore Sun) for Truman; Jerald terHorst (Detroit Free Press) for Ford; Ronald Nessen (NBC News and earlier United Press International) for Ford; and, Tony Snow (Fox News and earlier Detroit News) for George W. Bush.
6Two press secretaries died on the job, both of whom worked for Truman at the time of their deaths. Charles Ross died of a heart attack at his desk in December 1950 at age 65. Joseph Short also had a heart attack and died at age 48. Initial media reports also indicated that President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, had been fatally wounded in the March 30, 1981, shooting attack on the president by John Hinckley, Jr. Although very seriously injured, Brady survived.
7Press secretaries can also be used as presidential props. At a Dec. 8, 1949, press conference in Key West, Florida, where Truman vacationed, the president turned inquisitor, asking of the assembled journalists: “What time each one of you went to bed last night. I want an honest answer, and Mr. [press secretary Charles] Ross is taking it down.” The president also inquired as to whether they had eaten breakfast and written their wives. At one point, after asking if they had been well fed in Key West, Truman said, “I don’t ask you about the drinks, because I know you get enough of that.”
Answers: A. Ronald Ziegler, press secretary to Richard M. Nixon; B. Dee Dee Myers, press secretary to Bill Clinton; C. Ari Fleischer, press secretary to George W. Bush; D. James Brady, press secretary to Ronald Reagan.
Update: This post has been changed to reflect Tony Snow worked at the Detroit News, not the Detroit Free Press.
Mark Jurkowitz is Associate Director at the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project.