The White House Press Room lectern is the world’s most familiar -- and arguably the most powerful -- bully pulpit. Placed on a podium with a White House picture forming the backdrop and the US Presidential seal mounted in front of the lectern, it is a rostrum from which American Presidents, and more often their Press Secretary and other aides, address Americans and the world, often in magisterial tones. It is aimed at conveying the might and majesty of a country that rates itself as the most powerful and influential in the world. No other executive office – not 10 Downing Street, nor the Kremlin or Champs Elysee, projects such an image.
The term bully pulpit itself was coined by America’s 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, whose term also engendered expressions such as “whistlestop tours” (when election speeches were delivered from trains that stopped wherever people gathered) and “stumping” or “stump speech” (delivering speeches standing on a tree stump). Back in those days, bully was used as an adjective to convey excellence or fine quality, and in using the term bully pulpit, Roosevelt was suggesting that he could use the President’s office, and its prestige and high visibility, to inspire his countrymen.
Although Teddy Roosevelt created the permanent space for the press corps in the White House executive office (now called West Wing), it was Franklin Roosevelt who named the first formal White House Press Secretary to manage media affairs in the 1930s. Steve Early was a reporter with Associated Press, and among his tasks as the President’s spokesman (spokesperson in today’s gender-alert world) was to keep photographers at a distance to hide the severity of FDR’s polio.
Since then, there have been more than 30 White House Press Secretaries, but the job description, the joke goes, has not changed much: It is to keep journalists from reporting on the disabilities and failures of the US President and his administration. On a more serious note, it also involves explaining and putting the best spin on the President and his administration’s domestic policies and foreign policy agenda.
But when President Biden named Karine Jean-Pierre, a former chief of staff to Kamala Harris, as his Press Secretary last week, the messaging went beyond the usual remit. In a reversal of the Trump era politics that appeared to promote White primacy, it signalled that a diverse, plural, inclusive America is very much alive.
Karine Jean-Pierre is the first Black and openly lesbian person to serve as the presidential press secretary. Born to Haitian parents, she also has a tough blue-collar upbringing: her father was a taxi-drive in New York City and her mother was a health care worker. There is a touch of historical irony to the appointment. Steve Early, the first Press Secretary, was said to have prevented black journalists from attending the White House press briefings.
Of course, the Biden administration has taken diversity to a whole other level, beyond the more than nominal election of the country’s first female Black and South Indian vice-president. Roughly half of Biden’s cabinet is female. He has also appointed scores of openly LGBTQ professionals to full-time and advisory positions in the executive branch. They include Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly a gay cabinet member, and Dr Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, who is the first openly transgender person in a Senate-confirmed post.
What is also striking is that US Presidents have in recent times preferred to appoint women as White House Press Secretaries. Jean Pierre included, the last five press secs have been women – Jen Psaki, Kayleigh McEnany, Stephanie Grisham, and Sarah Sanders. To find the only two other women press secs, one has to roll all the way back to the Clinton Presidency, when Dee Dee Meyers became the first woman to head the White House press office, followed by Dana Perino in the Bush White House.
Does this mean American Presidents now believe women make more credible spokespersons? For the longest time in America (and indeed in much of the world) women were underrepresented in most of the professional workforce. Things are changing. Excluding farm workers and the self-employed, women now make up 50.04 per cent of payroll jobs in the US. Their time has come.
There are scores of studies about representation of women in public relations and advertising, none of which are flattering to the men who for the most part played a key role in objectifying women to sell commercial products. But a more recent study by Pew Research pointed to some interesting differences in perception between men and women: While men are seen as more decisive, women are more likely to be associated with qualities such as honesty and compassion. Americans – or people of any country for that matter – like their leaders to be decisive. Empathy and compassion are something they are happy to outsource and convey through their spokespersons.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington
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