The President's Mouthpiece

I never thought I’d find myself yearning for former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. After all, he was, well, a “carny,” as in “one who works with a carnival,” a good description of this administration. More specifically, he was an unflappable con artist, whose baby face and slipping horn-rimmed glasses dredged up a modicum of empathy that saved him from ridicule.    

But now that Jay ‘s shoes have been barely filled by his successor, Josh Earnest, the briefings of the press corps  (pronounced “core,” not “corpse”) have become dreary  affairs, mired in evasion and double-talk. The only transparency seems to be a “sheer” sense of boredom.  

I can’t recall anyone in recent administrations quite so lackluster at the task than sheepish Earnest. Granted, it’s not easy being the mouthpiece for a president who has a lot of explaining to do. And while Earnest makes a stab at emulating his last name, he does not generally see fit to “josh” around. If there were a special quality responsible for landing him his current assignment, it might be his ability to talk a lot and say a little. 

Consider the current chilly relationship between Bibi and Barack. Obama’s official excuse for not wanting Netanyahu to address Congress, or even show up in Washington, was the president’s reluctance to be construed as “meddling” in the latest Israeli election. We know, of course, that there was plenty of expensive meddling --against the Likud party -- facilitated by a hefty grant from the State Department, but it failed to put the skids on the “Sky is Falling” prime minister.

So what posture was Josh Earnest to assume in commenting on what he called the “apparent” re-election of Netanyahu? When pressed on that point, Josh waffled as follows:

“As I believe I said yesterday, we certainly congratulate the Israeli people on the completion of another election and again the fact that there are free and fair elections in Israel that sort of determine the political leadership of their country is one of the many important things the U.S. has in common with Israel.  It’s part of what forms the bond between our two countries, this sort of commitment to Democratic principles and the Democratic tradition and the president does intend later today or as early as today at least, to telephone the Prime Minister to talk to him about the election and to offer congratulations on the apparent victory for his party in the elections.”   

From that condescendingly long-winded exercise in evasion, we are led to believe that elections sort of determine political leadership and represent a sort of commitment to Democratic principles. Is this a backhanded slap at the present and future Prime Minister of Israel? Well, sort of. 

Josh can get pretty intractable, too. This administration is notorious for explaining away its questionable actions by pointing to the presumption of past precedent. Thus Obama justifies his executive actions by citing those of prior presidents. And Hillary excuses her unsecured private e-mail accounts by saying that others before her did the same. Yet last week, in regard to the Republican Congressmen’s letter to Iran’s Ayatollahs, Josh Earnest opined that “it did not matter” if there were precedents for such an action in the past. I doubt that even Jay Carney would have missed the inherent irony in such an assertion.

The sad fact is that watching Josh Earnest squirm is hardly amusing anymore. He appears unable to do more than smirk like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. And he uses the phrase “as I said before” a lot, as if to imply, peevishly, that the questioner wasn’t paying attention. Surely a press secretary is briefed beforehand on the talking points to use in response to likely queries. Is he also advised to be as circumspect and noncommittal as possible?    

It would seem so, as a favorite reply of his is “I don’t know” --or in the broader context , “the administration didn’t know.”  The trick is to make this utterance sound plausible. Early in March, when asked about the Hillary “e-mail-gate” matter,

Josh said he didn’t know if the White House knew former Secretary of State Clinton was maintaining her own server at her house where she kept her e-mails. But he did seem to know that she was doing everything possible to supply the State Department with any e-mails that were of a governmental nature. Obviously, this administration is willing to claim knowing some things and not others. (It’s a good thing Obama takes delivery of a morning paper, or he wouldn’t know anything!)  

Maybe there is something genuine to admitting “I don’t know the answer to that,” even if he does. Or maybe Earnest’s diffidence is the result of his having mostly operated behind the political scenes by way of carrying out policy, rather than in front of a microphone explaining it. 

After graduating from Rice, Earnest, a Kansas native, jumped right into the nitty-gritty of politics. In his almost twenty-year career, he has served in various capacities, including congressional aide to Marion Barry and communications director in Iowa and Texas during Obama’s 2008 primary.  He also worked on Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign for mayor of New York.  Back then, Bloomberg was a registered Republican, but a “Democrats for Bloomberg” effort was in full swing.

There has been at least one attempt to “humanize” Earnest in what MSNBC called its “history-making” interview with him via Meerkat. He was surely more relaxed in that friendly milieu, joking about stuff like sports and sporting a beard. But in his appearances before the probing professional journalists of the Press Corps, his armor of reserve is rarely cracked. 

Josh Earnest has been on this job now for almost a year. And while he may be have become increasingly proficient at the art of stonewalling, he must sense that the shelf life of a White House Press Secretary can be pretty limited these days. Playing defense for this administration is a taxing position on the White House team. And it’s possible that, under the façade of frankness, Earnest is already stamped with an expiration date. Could it be that he secretly hopes the time cannot come soon enough?  I don’t know the answer to that.