Points to ponder when you're a spokesman for the government

Mr. Tony Snow
Press Secretary to the President
The White House
Washington, D.C.

Dear Tony,

You know your way around the White House because you've worked there before as a presidential speech writer.

But there can be nothing quite like the adrenaline rush that overtakes you when you step up to the podium in the White House press room, clear your throat, and tell the assembled press of the nation and world what the president of the United States thinks about any issue they may care to raise.

Like you, I've been a journalist all my life. But I made a diversion during the Reagan administration to serve as spokesman for Secretary of State George Shultz.

The press corps at the White House is not so different from the press corps at the State Department. The reporters are smart, chronically suspicious of government, and perpetually attuned to nuance and body language. However, the White House reporters are sometimes a little too eager to do the "gotcha" story, catching the president's spokesman in a contradiction, whereas those at the State Department are pretty serious about getting the international story right.

Here are a few reflections on the business of spokesman:

Chemistry with your principal. It's good if you understand his philosophy. Great if you happen to like him. I had never met Mr. Shultz before he invited me to come and talk with him. What, I asked, was his philosophy for dealing with the press? "Well," he said, "I think reporters accredited to the State Department (about 5,000) ought to be given as much information as we can give them, as speedily as possible." What authority would his spokesman have? "If he's going to know what not to tell them, he'd better be in on everything." So what can he not divulge? "Secret intelligence data, disclosure of which could jeopardize sources. Ongoing diplomatic negotiations that both sides required be confidential." We were off to a good start.

As I worked with him, I came to appreciate his great diplomatic skills, his integrity, and his kindness to human beings of all stations.

Access. You can't be an effective spokesman without access. Shultz said I could be in on any meeting of his, whether in Washington or abroad, perhaps with the exception of a particularly sensitive one-on-one meeting with a foreign dignitary. I could read his classified cables. I also made a point of making Shultz the last person I spoke to before heading out to give the daily noon briefing.

Policy. A good spokesman can't be a ventriloquist's dummy. He has to be in on the making of policy, speak up, warn of possible adverse consequences. As Edward R. Murrow said when he was in government, if you're going to be there for the crash landing you have to be in on the takeoff. If a major policy decision is being made which grievously offends your principles, you can quit.

Your audience. I had previously worked as a foreign correspondent with many of the heavyweights grilling me at the State Department briefings. Tony, you have a similar plus. Many of your questioners will be people you've worked with. But when you face them from across the podium, the dynamics change. Don't imagine they will give you any quarter. The questions will be hardball. But you understand their business, their deadline stress, the politics within their news organizations. You have a level of trust with them, which brings me to the next point:

Never lie. The danger is that someone in your administration may give you false information that you might convey to your audience as truth. Larry Speakes, White House spokesman in the Reagan administration, never recovered from misleading a major news organization on the eve of the Grenada invasion. A reporter got a whiff of it, put it to Mr. Speakes, who was emphatically assured by the national security adviser, Adm. John Poindexter, that there was no truth to the story. Speakes knocked it down, but the invasion was virtually under way. Speakes was betrayed. He should have known the facts but been directed, for obvious reasons, to deflect any inquiries about the operation.

You can keep state secrets without lying. When a spokesman is consistently firm about what he will talk about and what he won't, reporters accept that. A spokesman caught lying forsakes the trust of reporters.

Journalists say they're in on the making of history. So are spokesmen.

Have fun,
John Hughes
Salt Lake City

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served in the Reagan administration as assistant secretary of State for Public Affairs and State Department spokesman.

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