The presidential mouthpiece
Regarding talk of cutting off U.S. aid to Egypt, Carney said this in his Monday briefing: "I think it would not be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt."
Obama's position. But the White House podium and its occupant from whatever administration has become so inflated that the press secretary sometimes seems to adopt authority sanctioned only in his own self-important rhetoric.
There was a time when the White House press secretary was no more than the vehicle for conveying the president's positions or views to the news media, and was clearly presented as such. Some have had a particularly close relationship to the Oval Office occupant, enhancing their own credibility.
Some even have been intimate political advisers to the president, going back to Steve Early, an old Associated Press reporter who became an FDR advance man and later his press guy. Another was Jim Hagerty, a former New York Times political reporter who counseled Dwight Eisenhower daily on press relations and reactions to news developments.
Lyndon Johnson had echo chambers in George Christian, George Reedy and Bill Moyers, all of whom recognized their boss's political astuteness as well as his demands that they color within the lines. Reedy, memorably, when asked what the relationship was between LBJ and his Senate aide Bobby Baker, who was under investigation of corruption, straight-facedly replied: "Frankly, they hardly knew each other."
Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, was one of his closest political advisers, and reporters knew that when he spoke, it was as close to coming from the horse's mouth as likely. Others, however, have been conspicuous lapdogs, most notably Richard Nixon's Ron Zeigler, who somehow missed the Watergate purge.
The opposite was Jerry terHorst, who, though a personal friend of Gerald Ford as an old Michigan reporter, soon resigned in principled protest of Ford's pardon on Nixon in the wake of the Watergate crimes. Another defector, after long toeing the administration line as a presidential puppet, was Scott McClellan, who eventually went out the door trashing his boss, George W. Bush, in a supposedly tell-all book.
Some other press secretaries without close and longtime connections with the president came to win both Oval Office and press room respect as self-effacing straight shooters, such as Dee Dee Myers and Mike McCurry under Bill Clinton. All seemed very careful not to venture into speaking on their own, or even leaving the impression of doing so.
But as the office of presidential press secretary has been elevated in the public eye by the power of television and the Internet, occupants have themselves become, or appear to regard themselves, not only as celebrities but fountains of political and policy wisdom. They dispense both with aplomb as if they themselves are there not merely conveyor belts of the president's views and dictates but as active collaborators in the decision-making process and the selling of it.
Jay Carney emerged after service as a Time magazine reporter and foreign correspondent who segued into the job of communications director -- a press secretary with oak-leaf cluster -- for Vice President Joe Biden. As such, he functioned as a loyal gatekeeper until chosen to replace Obama 2008 campaign insider Robert Gibbs in early 2011.
As the current presidential press secretary, Carney has sparred repeatedly with the White House press corps without the insider credibility of a Steve Early, a Jim Hagerty or a Jody Powell, but as a functionary who was not there at the creation of the Obama saga. So what he thinks is or is not "in the best interest of the United States" probably will not be of much interest to the rest of us.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)