Washington — The "hot seat" they call it in Washington. It's the presidential press secretary job. Jody Powell is exiting in a rather ambivalent mood, disappointed , even bitter, over having to leave but also obviously relieved that he doesn't have to undergo the discomfort of that job any longer.
Who will be next to have the honor of being speared by the Washington press corps in the daily briefings? Who will be next to have the responsibility of putting the best face on whatever the president does? Who will be next to have to serve the national interest by being evasive to questioners when some secret presidential initiative -- like the rescue mission in Iran -- is being planned and underway?
The President-elect isn't finding many volunteers for the job -- certainly not among those thought to be most qualified, those veterans of the press who would start out with the distinct advantage of possessing the respect of their colleagues from the media.
Time was when top press professionals would, in a sense, be standing in line to become press secretary. But that was before Vietnam and Watergate. Now those in the press tend to look down on both the job and the person who holds it. There is almost an assumption underlying the cutting questions put to the press secretary that he probably is lying.
Considering the snake-pit atmosphere that fills the White House news room, Jody Powell has stood up quite well. He has a country cunning and a bantering sense of humor that have allowed him to hold his own when the questioning has turned from probing to just plain nasty and insulting.
Powell took on too much work. Except for a relatively short period when Jerry Rafshoon did the long-range press planning, Powell took on much of that chore, too, one that was done by a director of communications when Nixon was president.
Powell's strength was his access to the President. Perhaps no previous press secretary, including Hagerty and Salinger, had such a close relationship with a president. Jody was almost a Carter son. Thus he not only was well positioned to be abreast of the President's action -- he also was continually tuned in on Jimmy Carter's thoughts and feelings.
How good a press secretary was he then? History's jury is still out and will be for a long time. But there are a number of observers in the press who are saying Jody was really superb. No doubt about it, the press, despite its daily tusseling with Powell, learned to respect him. He was highly intelligent. And, for the most part, he was informative.
In fact, probably the worst thing that is being said about Powell is that the members of the press, in the end, are giving much better marks to Jody for his performance than they are to the President.
"Look," one highly respected Washington bureau chief here said the other day, "Jody's job in many ways was to make the President look good in the eyes of the press and the public. But Jody ends up by looking good himself but failing to make the President look good. This failure led to the President not being elected. Jody was a part of that failure.Therefore he just didn't measure up as a press secretary."
That, to our thinking, is a relevant comment but too harsh a judgment on Powell's performance.
But now the President-elect is having his troubles in trying to inveigle someone into sitting in the hot seat. He'd like to give the job to a woman. But that's not the sort of opportunity women are calling for these days. In fact, you could say it's a little like an ancient king saying he was looking for a woman to be his food taster.
The latest information from the Reagan camp is that four top Reagan aides -- Jim Baker, Ed Meese, Mike Deaver, and Lyn Nofziger -- will get together this week and pick a press secretary.
And the latest "hot tip" is that the job will go to Jerry Friedheim, a foremer press secretary at Defense, who -- believe it or not -- is said to be actually asking for the position. Friedheim survived the pressure at Defense pretty well. But does he really know what he's getting into if he is granted the honor of dealing with the White House press on a moment- by-moment, day-by-day bas is?