02.16.11

Jay Carney's White House Debut

In his first time at the podium, the new press secretary evaded questions, stuck to talking points, and attempted humor. Lloyd Grove reports on Robert Gibbs' replacement.

Jay Carney gave his debut performance as White House press secretary on Wednesday afternoon. In the course of a nearly hour-long briefing he provoked no international incidents, wild swings in the stock market or, for that matter, trouble with his boss.

“I talked to him a couple of times this morning, and he wished me luck,” Carney revealed, when asked if President Obama had said anything to him before he faced the media mob.

In front of a standing-room-only audience in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room—“I appreciate the turnout,” Carney quipped, “I’ve never seen this room this crowded”—he began cautiously, frequently fidgeting with his talking points.

He was following a tough act—Obama confidant Robert Gibbs, whose unquestioned access and knowledge covered a number of sins, notably not returning phone calls. NBC’s Chuck Todd effusively complimented Carney on one noticeable difference from his predecessor.

“I see you’re retiring the pastel ties,” Todd said. “Nice to see a dark tie.”

Carney, who indeed wore a blue and purple rep tie with his white shirt and navy suit, quickly found himself speaking with nominal presidential authority on a frightening array of topics: the federal budget, entitlement reform, the uprising in Bahrain, the vicious attack on a journalist in Egypt, the killing of a federal law officer in Mexico, high-speed rail, and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Before too long, the former Time magazine correspondent was clearly settling into his new job, tangoing around tough questions like a Dancing With the Stars contestant and throwing up clouds of dust and glitter like a seasoned spinmeister. (Carney, 45, the husband of ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman, is somewhat seasoned, having worked as Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director after a two-decade career in journalism.)

Video screenshot

When ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper grilled him repeatedly on whether he was comfortable repeating the president’s bizarre contention that his just-released budget “doesn’t add to the debt,” Carney rewarded him with a poker-faced “Absolutely.”

“It’s the only budget proposal out there that reduces spending,” he added resolutely.

Carney said he’d brief regularly but not so often that “you’ll get sick of me.”

When asked who should play him this weekend on Saturday Night Live, Carney smiled wanly and said, “God forbid anyone does.” Indeed, so far, he didn’t give them much to work with.

Afterward, Tapper emailed me: “He didn’t make any news—by which I mean he dodged questions, evaded answers, promoted the president’s arguments, and kept his cool. He said he wouldn’t engage in hypotheticals, negotiate from the podium, or speculate. In short, he was a press secretary.”

Regarding the difference from Gibbs, Tapper added: “Jay is much more low-key than his predecessor, both by training and by temperament, which may serve the president well during this ‘new tone’ era. But that also may mean a forecast of less newsy press briefings is on the horizon.”

Promising to help White House reporters as much as possible while serving his true master, the president, Carney said he’d brief regularly but not so often that “you’ll get sick of me.”

The intrepid Mark Knoller of CBS News Radio, the White House’s unofficial statistician, noted later: “Some things never change from the Gibbs era. The first Carney briefing, set for 12:30 p.m., began at 12:43 p.m. “

In an email, he added: “It’s the first time he was speaking in an official capacity for the president of the United States and that will make anyone nervous. He seemed a bit ill-at-ease at first but warmed to the task as the briefing went on. He maintained his sense of humor and responded in kind to questions meant to feel him out about his new job, including my two questions at the end.”

As the briefing ended, Knoller asked Carney, essentially: Was it good for him?

“It was better than I ever could have imagined,” Carney quipped.

And which side of the journalist-spinmeister divide does Carney prefer?

“I like it up here,” Carney said.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.