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Another Nicety Returns With President Biden’s White House

February 4, 2021

Hat tip to Brad.

Not for the first time, and Lord knows it will not be last, I point out the changes made to this White House’s press operations.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki ended Tuesday’s press briefing with a quick exchange: “Thank you, Jen,” said Josh Boak, a White House reporter for the Associated Press. “Great,” replied Psaki. Then she put on her mask and headed out.

Those four words signaled the resurrection of an old White House briefing room tradition — observed under both Democratic and Republican administrations — in which the press secretary awaits the nod of the attending AP reporter before closing the book. (The privilege was initially assigned to the senior wire correspondent, but it eventually turned into an exclusively AP role.) Whereas her predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany, often ended briefings with scripted attacks on the media, Psaki has embraced a custom that accords the media a voice in the management of the briefing room.

George Condon, a National Journal White House reporter on the beat since 1982, described the traffic-cop role of longtime United Press International reporter Helen Thomas: “Before she would say, ‘Thank you,’ she was in the first row and she would glance around to see if there were hands still up because she didn’t want to cut it off before people had a chance to ask questions,” Condon said. Terence Hunt, a former AP White House reporter, tells us that the practice goes back at least 75 years, citing a 1946 book by longtime UPI reporter Merriman Smith, titled “Thank You, Mr. President” in reference to Smith’s role in closing out presidential news conferences.

I can not underscore how very much this change means not only to me, but others who want the common-sense nicety returned to our government.

This subject with the AP harkens back to the decades, as noted in the story, when some respect and decorum were overlaid on the issues and politics of the time. It may seem quaint, but when they are gone, as witnessed by the last four years, the outcome is awful, ugly, and ultimately dangerous to our democracy.

As I read the article I recalled two women who made the press pool at the WH so professional and honed their questions to reflect either the issue of the day, as with Helen Thomas

…or at times to what the nation needed to have an answer to regarding a story from ‘page 9’ which Sarah McClendon tried to ferret out of the press secretary.

I recall in high school watching coverage of a press briefing and McClendon is called upon. Her voice filled that room and Jody Powell, President Carter’s Press Secretary, was either not trying to take her seriously or dodging the topic—I forget which. But she bored in with even a louder voice and peppered with a follow-up that must have stung like buck-shot. That made an impact on me.  She was a nice person by all accounts but determined to do her job. 

And the press secretaries knew that and respected it.  Not only from her but from all those who worked in the press room of the White House. That working relationship, even though both sides have well-defined roles, was lacking in the past four years. That substantive change is what I so very much welcome in President Joe Biden’s White House.

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