It’s unfortunate — but understandable — that many in the press corps are expressing joy that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is leaving the job of White House press secretary.
Criticism of her performance in that role is robust, for seemingly valid reasons. In fairness, one cannot truly know the pressures she was under. There is little doubt that her boss called all the shots, and that her survival required pleasing him and only him.
That said, magnanimity of spirit — of which there is shamefully little in Washington these days — requires that we wish Sanders and her family well as they return to Arkansas for the next chapter of their lives.
Our focus should be on how her successor performs in what is arguably the most difficult job in the government. Why? Because the White House press secretary must simultaneously serve two very demanding masters whose agendas are quite different.
During my eight years in the Reagan White House, I had the honor of serving under three presidential press secretaries: Jim Brady, Larry Speakes, and Marlin Fitzwater. While they all had different personalities and approaches to the job, they all succeeded because they knew how to serve those two masters.
Based on my experience, here’s a little advice for whoever is the next White House press secretary.
First, tell the truth. Always. That’s as basic as it gets. If the truth does not serve the political interests of the administration (which is a troubling issue to begin with!), then say nothing. Advocate, explain, and attempt to persuade, but never ever say anything you know or think is untrue. Under no circumstances is lying acceptable.
Second, restore the daily White House press briefing and conduct them in the White House Press Briefing Room. Sanders’ haphazard drive-by briefings after appearances on Fox News are not a suitable substitute for standing at the podium and answering questions from reporters. If the new press secretary does not wish to become a celebrity, then don’t allow television coverage of the briefings.
Keep in mind that the White House Press Briefing Room was named to honor James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, who nearly lost his life doing his job. In the short time he was able to serve in that role, Brady set the gold standard for balancing the promotion of the administration’s policy initiatives with respectfully and honestly answering reporters’ questions. The chief executive’s spokesperson subjecting him or herself to a daily interrogation by the press is a hallmark of our democracy.
The symbolism of doing so in that iconic setting sends a powerful message that in our country. We value a free press. It does not happen in Moscow, Pyongyang, Riyadh, or Beijing. There are dangerous implications for our democracy if it stops happening here.
Third, treat reporters as the professionals they are. That means everything from not taking cheap personal shots at them from the podium, to allowing follow-up questions at briefings, to staying in the briefing room until all questions have been answered, to renewing credentials without hassle, to insisting that your staff proofread the press releases on which reporters rely to write stories, to giving logistical information in a timely fashion.
Show some understanding that the White House press corps has a job to do. It is the responsibility of the press secretary and the office staff to help them. The press is not the enemy of the people.
Finally, look at your paycheck. It is not drawn on the account of Donald J. Trump. It is drawn on the account of the United States government, which means the American people. It is them for whom you work and to whom you swore an oath to faithfully serve. As many White House press secretaries have shown over the years, loyally serving a president and faithfully serving the people are not mutually exclusive.
President Trump’s contempt for the White House press corps — and reporters in general — is known. It’s part of his brand, and unfortunately, he uses it to fire up his base. Whoever succeeds Sanders will not be able to change that. But they need not be part of it. Rather, the next White House press secretary should seek to strike the Brady balance of honorably serving two masters. That would be a great gift to both the president and the country.
Mark Weinberg served as White House assistant press secretary from 1981-89 and was promoted to the rank of special assistant to the president in 1988. He served as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office in 1989 and 1990. He is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster).
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.