Former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke Monday evening in Gaston Hall about his experiences as the nation’s 29th press secretary and recounted parts of his nearly three-decade career as a journalist for TIME Magazine.
The event, organized by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, consisted mostly of a student question-and-answer session during which over a dozen students asked Carney questions on topics ranging from the state of the American media to which television show most accurately captured life in the White House.
Carney began the session by speaking about his background as a press secretary. Jerald terHorst, the only other journalist to hold the office of press secretary retired about a month into his job for moral reasons after Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.
“I wasn’t a typical press secretary,” Carney, who succeeded Robert Gibbs as press secretary in 2011, said. “I hadn’t been a party operative working on campaigns. I hadn’t come from the president’s inner circle of friends or aides. And even though I spent two years working in the White House for the vice president, I was still very much an outsider.”
Carney also spoke about his background as a journalist and how it played into his decisions as press secretary. According to Carney, the way the White House is viewed from the outside does not align with how things actually are on the inside.
“I didn’t know how little I knew as a reporter,” Carney said. “What you find out very early on when you’re inside the White House is just the sheer volume of unbelievably pressing matters that are on the president’s desk every day.”
Before Carney turned to the audience for questions he said that the two biggest challenges during his time as press secretary was the Newtown school shooting and the faults of the Healthcare.gov website, a comment that drew a loud laugh from the crowd.
“Healthcare.gov was entirely our fault,” Carney said. “It was entirely our responsibility and the president took that seriously. There was a period there in October of 2013 when it became clear to everyone, including us, how badly this thing was functioning [and] that it may not work at all.”
Carney briefly discussed the rough relationship the Obama administration had with journalists, especially the White House Press Corps. Journalists frequently complained about access to the president, especially in regards to photography, while Carney held his position as press secretary. A New York Times op-ed by the Associated Press Photography Director in December 2013 criticized the White House for its “Orwellian image control.” During the question-and-answer session Carney said the op-ed was inaccurate.
“My belief is always that the day that the White House Press Corps stops complaining about access is the day we should worry about our democracy. If there is ever a day where they’re happy, we’re screwed,” Carney said.
Carney also emphasized the effect that social media, especially Twitter, has had on the job of the White House press secretary.
“Fires burn a lot more brightly now because of the intensity that Twitter can create, but they burn out more quickly,” Carney said.
Carney ended the discussion with a question from an audience member on how he was able to balance his commitment as a parent with his commitment as the president’s press secretary. Carney said that his decision to play a major role in his two children’s lives was one the main reason he resigned as press secretary a few months ago.
“You guys all have parents, and I know they all feel the same way I do,” Carney said. “You don’t get it back. My daughter is never going to be 9 again. She’s going to be 9 now.”
Nearly 800 students RSVPed for the event on Facebook, although the 750-seat auditorium was not at capacity during the event.
Zhuoyun Liu (MSB ’18) said that she enjoyed listening to Carney speak and thought it was one of the better lectures she has been to this semester.
“It was very interesting and educational,” Liu said. “He’s a really good and fun speaker compared to other speeches I’ve been to this semester. He had more content and there was more to digest.”