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A Brief(ing) History of the White House Press Secretary

Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockheart. Image Credit: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images

When a new president takes office, the White House press corps gets a new face behind the briefing podium. The White House press secretary is the key to controlling the flow of information between the presidential administration and journalists—putting together press releases, holding briefings for the press corps, and facilitating access to top officials in the administration. But the idea of an official White House press secretary is more recent than you might think.

Back in the 19th century, the press didn’t even have a regular presence at the White House—partly because the president just wasn't as powerful as Congress, so journalists didn't see a need. William W. Price, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, was perhaps the first White House beat reporter, stationing himself outside the White House to interview people on their way out of the building starting in 1895, and inspiring other reporters to follow suit. In 1896, some newspaper correspondents decided to take over a table outside the president’s secretary’s office (the 19th century equivalent of the chief of staff). They never really left, but it would be decades before the press got a dedicated presidential liaison.

During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, one of his aides, George Cortelyou—the president's "confidential stenographer"—began issuing presidential press releases and disseminating copies of the president’s speeches for the first time. Roosevelt finally gave the press dedicated space in the White House, meeting with reporters regularly.

Still, the first person to officially hold the White House Press Secretary title was George Akerson, who was appointed to the post in 1929 by Herbert Hoover. Akerson, like many subsequent press secretaries, had once been a journalist, serving as a Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Tribune. He later became Hoover’s assistant when Hoover was Commerce Secretary and served as his right-hand man during the presidential election campaign. Just how well Akerson did the press secretary job, though, is debated. Some call him "incompetent," while other historians say the loyal aide merely took the blame for his boss’s clear distaste for the press. He wouldn’t be the last press secretary to have his legacy tied up in his boss’s shortcomings, however.

TO QUOTE A PRESIDENT

Nowadays, we may hear the president’s words (and tweets) verbatim all the time, but the populace didn’t always have access to presidential sound bites. Before Hoover, reporters weren’t even allowed to quote their interviews with the president directly in the press. (When Woodrow Wilson became the first president to hold a formal press conference in 1913, the whole thing was off the record—no quotes allowed.)

But although Hoover would change this policy and promise a more open relationship with the media, his standing with the press fell rapidly over his term. Despite his promise to answer questions from journalists, for instance, he required reporters to submit all questions beforehand to Akerson, who met with the press twice a day. He would only answer the questions he liked, and sometimes, he wouldn’t answer any at all. In fact, the press wasn't truly free to quote the president until Eisenhower's administration, two decades later.

A MODERNIZING PRESS

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office after Hoover in 1933, the press secretary’s job had changed drastically. Stephen T. Early was the first press secretary to deal with a media landscape that wasn’t just newspapers but included radio and newsreels, too.

Early, a respected reporter who had broken the news of President Warren G. Harding’s 1923 death while at the Associated Press, had a key role in FDR’s media strategy. At his urging, the president held twice-weekly press conferences for the first time. Early also helped Roosevelt create his famous fireside chats—comforting, conversational radio broadcasts that appeared throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Early left his post shortly before the president’s death, returning to the White House for a brief two weeks later to work with Truman after the sudden death of press secretary Charles Ross [PDF].

New press secretaries have had to grapple with new challenges of the job each year. Mike McCurry (one of Bill Clinton’s press secretaries), for instance, was the first to televise press briefings in their entirety. First, he allowed a few minutes of the briefing to be filmed, slowly allowing the cameras to film more and more. He came to regret this when TV stations began broadcasting his briefings live during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, later calling it "the dumbest thing I ever did."

And the position of press secretary is (slowly) evolving, too. The post has historically been filled by men, and there have only been two women in history to take on the role. Dee Dee Meyers, Bill Clinton’s first press secretary, was the first, taking the podium in 1993. Meyers later became a consultant for The West Wing, and the character of the press secretary in the show, C.J. Cregg, was inspired by her. (Played by Allison Janney, Cregg is also the only fictional character to ever conduct a real White House press briefing.) George W. Bush hired Dana Perino in 2007, making her the second woman press secretary in history.

INSIDE THE PRESSURE-COOKER

It's rare for one press secretary to stay in the job for more than a few years because it’s so stressful. Only five press secretaries have stayed for the full term of the president who hired them. One of the longest-serving press secretaries, Marlin Fitzwater, told Editor & Publisher in 1996 that he thought his six years in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations were too much for him. "I think it’s too high-pressure. You get along OK, but you don’t realize how your effectiveness becomes diminished by just the daily battles," he said. "I don’t think a press secretary can survive in that kind of a pressure cooker for more than four or five years."

Of course, the pressures of the job differ based on the relationship the press secretary has with the president. Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary James Hagerty, for example, was one of Ike’s most trusted advisors, traveling to be by his side when the president was recovering from a heart attack and when he had surgery. Sometimes, in the middle of a press conference, Eisenhower would stop to consult with Hagerty. And Hagerty was the first one to allow journalists to quote the president’s words at press conferences in full, verbatim—giving him another boost in the eyes of the reporters he worked with.

Presidential administrations aren’t always so trusting. Scott McClellan, press secretary for George W. Bush, had difficulty squeezing accurate information out of senior White House officials, and as a result, his credibility with the press tanked. "He got pounded day after day because the president didn't allow him to do much more than repeat the talking points," Slate political columnist and CBS journalist John Dickerson wrote in 2006. Dickerson described the resignation of "dutiful, gracious, and somewhat piñatalike McClellan" as "one last symbolic mission" of self-sacrifice. Like Hoover’s press secretary George Akerson, McClellan was caught between reporters demanding more—and more accurate—information and White House bosses who didn’t want to reveal anything.

SERVING AS A GO-BETWEEN

But according to Ron Nessen, press secretary under Gerald Ford, the basic requirements of the job are the same regardless of the president. "I think most press secretaries, no matter what their background is, come to understand that the same set of rules apply year after year, administration after administration: Tell the truth, don’t lie, don’t cover up, put out the bad news yourself, put it out as soon as possible, put your own explanation on it, all those things," he explained in an article for eJournal USA.

And while each president has a unique—occasionally combative—relationship with the press, McCurry says that the press secretary shouldn’t be the enemy of members of the media. "The press office has to be an advocate for the press and the public's right to know inside the White House," he told the White House Historical Association. "Sometimes you will lose out to other priorities, but at least the press will sense that someone is looking out for its interests. That is the way to best serve the president. The modern presidency cannot work effectively if it is constantly at war with the media."

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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