• Marc Johnson

Government’s Best Job


I once held the best job I can think of in government. For five years, I was the press secretary to a candidate for governor who then became governor. As I think back on that stint from 1986 to 1991, I consider it my “post graduate education” in communications, public affairs strategy, crisis management, handling of big egos and multi-tasking. It was about the best job – and the most stressful – I’ve ever had.

That’s Steve Early looking over Franklin Roosevelt’s shoulder in the photo. Early, a former reporter, was perhaps the earliest person in American politics to really be considered a “press secretary.” He worked on FDR’s 1932 campaign and took his considerable skills into the White House where he served every day of Roosevelt’s presidency. Based upon what I’ve read of Steve Early’s career, he was more than a gatekeeper. He advised on policy and often when FDR was away from Washington, Early was literally in charge. Almost a deputy president. Heady stuff.

Early went on to work for the Pullman Company and served in the Truman Administration as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Arguably, being FDR’s spokesman and policy advisor equipped him for just about any job.

[There is a good book on Steve Early and his role in helping FDR succeed that is a very worthwhile dip into Roosevelt’s political genius and his mastery, with his press secretary’s considerable help, of the media.]

The best and most successful politicians, I think, bring their press secretary or communications directors into the policy process. I was fortunate in my time as a press secretary to have a “seat at the table” in any meeting, easy and open access to the boss and real input into policy. I’m convinced it allowed me to do my press liaison job better. I wasn’t hearing things second or third hand. I was there when the decisions were made. I’ve always been glad I didn’t have to joust with reporters without a full, nuanced understanding of what the boss was trying to accomplish and why.

Many recent American presidents have had very good press secretaries, in part I think, because guys like Jody Powell (Carter), Marlin Fitzwater (Reagan), Pierre Salinger(Kennedy)and today’s Robert Gibbs have an advisor role as well as a spokesman role. Richard Nixon, by contrast, kept Ron Ziegler in the dark about most everything leading to the spokesman’s infamous phrase that “this is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” In other words, I mislead you before, but you can count on what I just said. Bad territory for a press secretary.

There is nothing in the world quite like handling communication for a person in political life, which is just one of the reasons I’m so happy to welcome another person to our firm with that background. Anna Richter Taylor, the chief spokesperson and policy advisor to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is joining our firm’s Portland office early next year. Anna will be a stellar addition to our firm.

Anna will find, as I did some years ago, that being at the elbow of a governor who values the advice and perspective of a communications pro is about the best experience anyone can accumulate in politics and public affairs. It really is the best job in government. And that is an operative statement.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson