“The tenor of that briefing to Sarah was 'How on Earth could you possibly let him get away with this?'” Fleischer said. “It's not her role to do that. It's other people's role. It's the voters' role, fundamentally, and I don't blame the press for exploring questions on it. But it's not for them to badger Sarah about 'how can you possibly do it?' After two or three times, she's just said what she says. She's given the answer. She cannot go further.”
As anyone who watches the news can see, the White House press secretary is often in a tough spot.
“I’d liken the job to being a human piñata,” Mike McCurry, who was a press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, said Tuesday night at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. “The press corps just kind of whacks at you to see if anything will spill out.”
Journalists and public relations experts have criticized President Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for repeating things in his tweets that prove to be untrue.
But Ari Fleischer, who was President George W. Bush’s press secretary, seemed more sympathetic to Sanders. He used an example in which reporters repeatedly asked Sanders about a tweet issued by President Trump saying that fraudulent votes were cast in California.
“The tenor of that briefing to Sarah was ‘How on Earth could you possibly let him get away with this?’” Fleischer said. “It’s not her role to do that. It’s other people’s role. It’s the voters’ role, fundamentally, and I don’t blame the press for exploring questions on it. But it’s not for them to badger Sarah about ‘how can you possibly do it?’ After two or three times, she’s just said what she says. She’s given the answer. She cannot go further.”
Fleischer also acknowledged that he had yet to see any evidence supporting the president’s claim.
Fleischer and McCurry visited LSU to discuss their experiences during wars and scandals and impart what they had learned.
In an interview, Fleischer said he encourages students to find the good in politics and political campaigns since too often it’s about “fighting for a win.”
“It’s such a rapidly changing business, but at the core of it is public service,” Fleischer said. “So, as much as there can be cynicism around political communication, I would hope that people are able to elevate and find the good things about government and politics.”
When asked about being press secretaries during times of crisis, McCurry said in an interview that Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was “zestier than most.”
“I’m probably more envious of Ari,” McCurry said. “He got to be press secretary at such a formidable moment of challenge, and I got to deal with a sex scandal.”
McCurry said he thinks the scandal with Lewinsky would have gone “supernova” had Twitter been around in the 1990s. He added that he did not think Clinton's presidency would have survived, and what saved him was his popularity and the good state of the economy.
McCurry and Fleischer joined Manship School students Kayla Swanson, Matt Houston and a packed house of attendees for a discussion about the role of the press secretary.
The men shared stories of their times in the White House and reflected on today’s media landscape.
Fleischer said one of the difficult parts of the job was staying politically neutral.
“You take a shot at a reporter, or a shot at somebody else in public life, and it feels good from the podium for a little bit, but it doesn’t have much of an afterlife,” Fleischer said. “You have to be aware of how much power you have standing at that podium representing the President of the United States and the White House.”
Though both speakers joked about the difficulty of the job, they were quick to highlight the great aspects of it as well. Fleischer reflected on his response to 9/11, saying he did not intentionally mean to help people feel calmer but was proud that he did.
The speakers then discussed the role of the press secretary in the modern media landscape, in which the president can address the American people through Twitter instantly. Fleischer said the modern press secretary remains "essential" in order to further the "back-and- forth" discussion between the White House and the media.
Overall, Fleischer was critical of what he saw as the bias of White House reporters and the news media in general. He encouraged students who may one day fill those to "be neutral" and "seekers of facts and truth" rather than analysts. Fleischer added that he could not recommend an entirely neutral media outlet.
Mass Communication freshman Sarah Procopio said she enjoyed the event and found it helpful because she hopes to one day be involved in politics.
“Both of them had really tough jobs, so for them to come here and enumerate all of the successes and failures was really eye-opening and informative as someone who wants to get involved in politics or media,” Procopio said.
Martin Johnson, a Manship professor who will become the dean of the Manship School on July 1, said he was excited by the attendance and praised the two student interviewers on their “fantastic” roles.
After the event, McCurry offered some final thoughts on the role of press secretary.
“It is both an honor and fun working at the White House,” McCurry said. “Very few people get the privilege of working in the White House with the president, and along with that goes some incredible experiences that are a lot of fun too.”
Abbie Shull contributed to this report.