Jen Psaki held her last press conference as White House press secretary on Friday, and it was “the end of an era.”
That quote doesn’t come from someone in President Joe Biden’s administration, or an MSNBC reporter (Psaki’s next gig is reportedly working for the liberal-leaning network). Instead, it comes from Peter Doocy of Fox News, her frequent inquisitor and sparring partner. Doocy made the comment on “Fox & Friends,” hosted by (among others) his father Steve. He repeated it in a tweet after her last briefing.
Doocy’s admiration — he also said Psaki made him a better reporter, despite their confrontations — points toward something only the most partisan person would disagree with: Psaki was good at her job.
Psaki’s job was to sell the Biden administration. And to show up.
In comparison with the revolving door of whatever it was the Trump administration was putting out there, she was great at it, in fact, in part because she showed up. She held more briefings in her tenure (224) than all of Trump’s White House press secretaries combined (205).
Make no mistake, Psaki’s job is to sell the administration, to spin its policies and actions in the most positive light possible. She did that.
But she didn’t blatantly lie, and she wasn’t openly hostile. Nor did she rely on lackeys to float up softball questions designed to make the president look good, like OAN or Newsmax’s “questions” during briefings during the previous administration.
In short, she brought dignity back to the job. You can describe the way in which Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham and Kayleigh McEnany conducted the job in any number of ways, but dignified doesn’t spring first to mind.
Their briefings — Grisham infamously never actually held one, which is kind of like paying an NBA player good money and keeping him on the bench all season — were often contentious, with the secretary in attack mode. If your mandate from on high is that the media are the enemy of the people, how else are you going to operate?
Spicer kicked things off by claiming Trump’s 2017 inauguration boasted “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”
Fact check: It wasn’t, something Spicer later walked back after he was out of the job. The false claim and the defense of it set the contentious tone, both for the briefings and for the administration. It was great for “Saturday Night Live” parodies, not so great for democracy.
Psaki, who thanked the press corps during her final briefing Friday, got at that a little bit, albeit in a way that shifted any praise to Biden and his wife, Jill. She described her first meeting with them after he was elected.
“Really, what we talked about for the majority of the conversation was the importance of returning integrity, respect and civility to the White House,” she said.
If the implication is that the previous White House didn’t have a lot of those qualities, well, so be it.
Debate with the media is a sign of ‘democracy in action. That it is working’
“That doesn’t mean we haven’t let our Irish side show, mine and the President’s,” Psaki said. “I realize that. But on my best days, and as I look back, I hope I followed the example of integrity and grace that they set for all of us, and do set for all of us every day.”
She called the debates with reporters a sign of “democracy in action. That is it working. Without accountability, without debate, government is not as strong.”
This is unquestionably true. The trouble is debate so often has been replaced by partisan flame-throwing. But Psaki has done her bit to restore some sanity to the proceedings.
Again, Psaki’s not perfect, and there’s real debate over the value of the White House press briefing. Some believe it’s an outdated sales job, or the elite asking the elite questions in an exchange designed to create memeable moments instead of providing answers Americans really need or care about.
If you’ve ever watched one, you know that they’re actually more boring than that, often delving into minutiae that only a policy wonk could love. Gripping TV, they’re not. And you can’t really break news in a room where a bunch of reporters are hearing the same answers.
But the briefings do serve a purpose, which is getting the administration on the record on any number of issues. Psaki was able to provide that. Here’s hoping her replacement, Karine Jean-Pierre, continues to.