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.


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.


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.


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.


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."

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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