By Grace Hagerty
There was a time when Press Secretaries were great. They tried to connect with the public and advocate on behalf of the president in new and innovative ways. In the “good ol’ days,” press secretaries did not butt tweet nor holler “alternative facts” at reporters, they worked with the press because they understood the value of a mutually beneficial relationship. President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary James (Jim) C. Hagerty was a hugely transformational figure in the White House press office. Much like Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Hagerty was tasked with navigating a changing media landscape. At his first press briefing in 1953, Hagerty said:
“When I say to you, 'I don't know,' I mean I don't know. When I say, 'No comment,' it means I'm not talking, but not necessarily any more than that. Aside from that, I'm here to help you get the news. I am also here to work for one man, who happens to be the President. And I will do that to the best of my ability.”
Unlike Spicer, Hagerty had a respect for the press coupled with a rich understanding of their profession. Hagerty’s father James A. Hagerty was the chief political correspondent for the New York Times. Prior to Jim’s time in the White House, he was a reporter for the New York Times and Press Secretary to New York Governor Dewey. Hagerty knew the press inside and out. This served him well as he entered the White House amidst a time of great transition within the media industry.
Hagerty managed the White House press office from 1953-1961. This was a time of unprecedented technological advancement. On January 19, 1955, he orchestrated the first televised presidential news conference, allowing President Eisenhower to speak directly to the people from the White House. During his tenure as the longest serving White House Press Secretary, Jim Hagerty was a household name. He was featured in Esquire, Time Magazine, Life, and many major media outlets. He was well known because he played an instrumental role in shaping a transparent and direct relationship between the White House and the American people in a way that had never before been possible. He also was the first Press Secretary to hold two press conferences a day, now a hallmark of the White House Press office. Perhaps most significantly, Hagerty abolished the rule that the president could not be directly quoted without permission. Under his leadership, for the first time, everything that the president said at a press conference could be printed word for word.
Eisenhower and Hagerty used their influence to get closer to the American people. Hagerty’s press office was designed to favor transparency and professionalism. Spicer and the Trump team have taken the exact opposite approach and though they inherited a very similar technological landscape to that of their predecessor, they are using technology in a way that has never been done before. Essentially, they have eschewed substantive public addresses in favor of twitter rants.
Unlike Spicer, Hagerty understood that the central duty of the Press Secretary is to be the president’s advocate. Unfortunately, Spicer is doing a terrible job advocating for President Trump. In his conferences and press releases he is giving the press corps a lot to ridicule and very little to work with. Just look at the press release titled “Praise for President Trump.” This was both propaganda-esque and completely devoid of concrete facts. Spicer wrote a presidential press release that reads like a movie trailer.
Perhaps the most important difference between Spicer and Hagerty is that Hagerty respected and understood the multidimensional nature of the press; therefore he was able to be incredibly effective at his job. I am proud to say that I, Grace Hagerty, am his great-granddaughter and in my opinion, Press Secretary Sean Spicer is fumbling bigly.
Spicer appears to have no understanding of journalists nor does he seem willing to work with them in any capacity. He was never a journalist; rather, he was the communications chair for the RNC. There have been successful Press Secretaries that had virtually the same exact experience as Spicer. However, his predecessors, who also happened to be political partisans, made some effort to understand America’s fourth estate. Spicer’s lack of understanding and apparent contempt for the press make him both incredibly unlikeable and an ineffective advocate for President Trump who, frankly, needs all the help he can get when it comes to public perception. Journalists will not write balanced articles about President Trump if his Press Secretary is screaming at them; that’s common sense.
Either Spicer is completely unfit to hold this position or his temperament is a calculated strategic move to divert public attention from the unconstitutional policies Trump wishes to enact. The Trump Administration should meet the press halfway by creating workable conditions for the press to do its job. It’s in our national interest for them to do so. However, that does not seem to be their political strategy. The Trump team appears to be on a mission to create a feud with the press as a diversionary tactic so they can steamroll their political agenda with minimal public commentary. My great-grandfather is spinning in his urn.
Spicer is championing Trump’s anti-media message. To team Trump, there are only two palatable media figures. Naturally, the first one is Sean Hannity who epitomizes President Trump’s view of journalistic ethics and integrity. And then we have Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. His far right website Breitbart looms large in Trump’s heart. On Wednesday, January 25th, Bannon contacted the New York Times himself in order to berate them. He said: “I want you to quote this: the media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” This ludicrous interview continues as Bannon says: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut.” As the head of press relations for team Trump, Spicer was complicit with Bannon’s remarks at best and orchestrated them at worst. Bannon’s rant is further evidence that these four years will likely be an all-out war with the White House and the press. This is literally the exact opposite strategy my great-grandfather took.
Jim Hagerty realized that the White House and the media could benefit from a cordial relationship and he shaped the White House Press office around that notion. However, the philosophy of my great-grandfather seems completely lost on Sean Spicer. His several shortcomings and apparent inability to adhere to traditional Press Secretary decorum minimizes the significance of an office that means so much to me, my family, and most importantly our national identity. It’s in our best interest as a nation to hope for the success of Sean Spicer as he encounters the challenges associated with running the press office. However, Spicer is at the helm of Trump’s war on the press and this feud will ultimately hurt the American people. All can say is “sad.”