Former White House Press Secretary talks about his job, optimism for the future
With his parents sitting among a couple hundred others in Pierson Auditorium Feb. 8, Kansas City native and Former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest talked about his tenure in the White House and about his optimistic outlook on the future.
Earnest was invited to UMKC by the Advisory Committee to the Carolyn Benton Cockefair Chair. Steve Kraske, host of KCUR’s “Up to Date” and associate teaching professor of journalism at UMKC, welcomed Earnest back to Kansas City and to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Josh Earnest is a Kansas City kid with a mean jump shot,” Kraske said. “He always made sure to let people know how proud he was to be from Kansas City. He represented Barak Obama with grace.”
Earnest’s opening remarks were short because he wanted to take questions from the audience.
“I want to have a conversation,” Earnest said. “I want to foster a dialogue. And there’s so much to talk about.”
After a round of laughter and chuckles from the audience about having a lot to discuss, Earnest shared what it was like being White House Press Secretary and being in charge of the daily press briefings. Earnest reflected on a special Tuesday in May of 2014, when he was principle deputy White House Press Secretary. He recalled the moment President Obama said, “Well Josh, you’re going to be my next press secretary.”
“I was so excited about the opportunity that I was being given that I tried to keep my cool and remember that things wouldn’t be the same for me. I recognized this as an opportunity to shape the dialogue in Washington.”
Earnest took his job seriously. His goal was to present arguments to the press who in turn presented those arguments to the American people through news stories. His hope was that readers and viewers gained a better understanding of the president’s policies.
As promised, Earnest’s talk quickly moved to questions and conversation. Questions included how he operated the press corps, how he handled sensitive military questions and how he really felt about the Saturday Night Live segments about his time in the White House.
“The Podium doesn’t actually move around,” Earnest said as he laughed with the audience. Fortunately, he said he wasn’t satirized like others have been.
A January 2018 Twitter message from Earnest may have prompted one person to ask about the time the Kansas City Royals visited the White House.
“I have been a Kansas City Royals fan my entire life. It was one of my best days in the White House,” Earnest said of the Royals’ visit to Washington after winning the World Series.
Some questions posed to Earnest focused on the serious times in the White House and one person asked about the lighter times. Earnest shared ways President Obama relaxed and lightened the mood around them. Watching ESPN was at the top of that list.
Going back to a serious question, one man asked what went through Earnest’s mind before the daily press briefings. Did he panic? Did he have doubts? Did he worry about saying the right thing?
Earnest said the key was to always be focused and be as prepared as possible. He said there were days he’d have to take a deep breath because he knew being a “jerk” wasn’t the right approach for him. Earnest stayed true to himself with a calm approach.
“I was focused. If I charged in there prepared to win a debate, I’ve lost.”
One UMKC student asked for advice on dealing with the tone of the White House under current President Donald Trump. As Earnest talked about the current media ecosystem being overly focused on conflict he offered patience for staying the course.
“Trump continues to pick fights and get people fired up,” Earnest said. “It gains attention and pleases his base. But in U.S. politics, we elect successive presidents who are opposite. We swing back and forth. At the end of his term its possible people will be tired of his outrageousness.”
A UMKC School of Law student asked for career advice for those pursuing a career in public service.
“There’s no good substitute for being a good writer,” Earnest said.
His second piece of advice, “Stay true to your instincts. Believe in who you work for. I worked for Barack Obama because I really believed in him.” Earnest worked on the Obama campaign in Iowa. He got to know Obama first, which was very helpful.
Earnest’s third bit of advice, “Be patient.” He said that doesn’t mean a person doesn’t have to work hard. As deputy press secretary, there were times he wondered if he would ever hold the position of press secretary.
“I thought to myself, I can do that. And I eventually got to.”
And how does Earnest sift through all the noise? He remains optimistic.
“Technology created this problem,” Earnest said. “The question is, what do we do to adapt?”
He believes that given time, technology can create a solution, including a way to better curate the news. But there’s no substitute for people becoming more engaged and more informed.
During President Trump’s term, Earnest said everyone will have the opportunity to judge him, just as they have done with previous presidents. Then the comparisons can be made.
“We’ll then be able to get back to debating real issues,” Earnest said. “And it’s ok to take a break from the news. It’s possible to get exhausted from it all. Today’s outrage will be overtaken by tomorrow’s.”