Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said he had two rules during his tenure: Cave early and often, and grovel if you have to.
Thursday night Fitzwater and Dana Perino, an adjunct faculty member in the GW Graduate School of Political Management, shared memories from their terms as the face of the White House.
“At all times you need to keep eyes and ears open for what’s going on in the press,” Perino said. “Because as Marlin said, when you go into the Oval Office, right before the press comes in the president always turns to you and says, ‘What’s on their mind?’ And you need to know.”
Fitzwater recounted an incident during George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign when the media misrepresented Bush after he marveled at a supermarket barcode scanner. The press spun the story to appear as though it was the first time Bush had seen common grocery store technology.
Once video footage was released, “Two or three [journalists], including the Associated Press, said, ‘You’re right, this is not fair, and this is not accurate,’ but it didn’t matter. Once it was gone, because of the power of television, the idea had spread out,” Fitzwater said.
Perino said press secretaries rarely deal with life or death situations, but cited the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl as an exception. Pearl was captured by al-Qaeda and decapitated by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“One of the things that people don’t know is that when you saw the video of them slitting his neck and cutting his head off… is the camera didn’t work the first time, so Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made them put the head back on,” Perino said.
Perino also described an event where she accompanied George W. Bush to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to bestow Purple Hearts on critically injured soldiers and visit their families. One soldier had been comatose for two weeks, and while the military aide read the commission, George W. Bush explained what a Purple Heart was to the soldier’s 5-year-old son.
“Just then, and if I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t believe it, the soldier’s eyes opened,” Perino said.
Fitzwater, who never allowed cameras in the press briefing room, marveled at the changes to his old position.
“Yesterday [President Obama’s press secretary] Robert Gibbs gave this briefing without cameras and everybody thought it was so unique and so brilliant,” he said. “Wait a minute, I was there 15 years ago!”