On Behalf of the President: Four Factors Affecting the Success of the Presidential Press Secretary

By Towle, Michael J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

On Behalf of the President: Four Factors Affecting the Success of the Presidential Press Secretary


Towle, Michael J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


In the fall of 1957, Journalism Review printed an article entitled "President Eisenhower and his Press Secretary," which examined "the more authoritative role" played by Eisenhower's press secretary, James C. Hagerty. After noting the able manner in which Hagerty managed the news conferences following Eisenhower's heart attack, the author of the article attempted to underscore his point by stating:

So adept was Hagerty's management of the news conferences which he held ...

that a national magazine did a "profile" of the press secretary to give

readers more information about the President's lieutenant.(1)

Thirty-four years later this statement seems out of place. But in 1957 it was indeed surprising that a national news magazine--in this case Newsweek--would profile the press secretary.

The brief span of time in which the press secretary has risen from obscurity to prominence is one indication of the importance of this post. Yet relatively little systematic research has been conducted about the presidential press secretary. The goal of this article is to examine the factors which lead to the successful performance of the presidential press secretary.

To measure "success" among political actors invites several problems for scholars. By what standards and from whose point of view is success measured?(2) This problem is exacerbated for those who seek to analyze presidential press secretaries, because presidents and the press may have very different ideas about what they seek in a press secretary. Consequently, one cannot simply evaluate such criteria as effectiveness at maintaining good presidential--press relations. Reporters might argue, for example, that those press secretaries who release the most information are successful. But a president like Nixon who distrusted the press and preferred to keep them uninformed would have a very different standard to judge a "successful" press secretary. One way to evaluate the performance of press secretaries is to assess the extent to which they have been considered effective by both their president and the press. Of course, these may be mutually exclusive possibilities. Nonetheless, some have succeeded by this standard.

This study begins with the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower because Eisenhower's press secretary, James C. Hagerty, is considered by the press to be the standard by which press secretaries are judged. Furthermore, it was during the Eisenhower years that the White House press office began to institutionalize along the structure that it maintains today.(3) This study ends with the presidency of Jimmy Carter because Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, operated his press office similar to Hagerty, and was similarly successful. Between the two presidencies were four other presidents served by seven different press secretaries. The varied relationships between these presidents and their press secretaries provide a fun range of examples for examination.

The historical record suggests that there are four factors which contribute to the success or failure of the presidential press secretary. This article examines the role these four factors played in the performance of the press secretaries from Eisenhower through Carter.

Four Crucial Factors

The first factor to examine is the importance of the press secretary to the administration. This can be ascertained by asking two questions. First, is the press secretary an "insider" or an "outsider" of the administration? Analyses of presidential administrations frequently include mention of the "top" or "senior" advisers. Stephen Hess has described the staff as consisting of "Inner Staff" and "Outer Staff," with the Inner Staff constituting (among other things) "those whose opinions are sought or who are given assignments on a wide variety subjects, especially in areas in which they are not expert."(4) Reporters are very sensitive to the status of the press secretary. …

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