A war of words for the White House: Campaign press secretaries work hard for their candidates - but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll become top voice if their boss gets elected. Steve Lilienthal hits the trail with this year’s chief

We’re on the campaign trail with the Al Gore mob, and sitting alone in a van, St. Petersburg political reporter Sara Fritz is getting increasingly agitated.

We’re on the campaign trail with the Al Gore mob, and sitting alone in a van, St. Petersburg political reporter Sara Fritz is getting increasingly agitated.

We’re on the campaign trail with the Al Gore mob, and sitting alone

in a van, St. Petersburg political reporter Sara Fritz is getting

increasingly agitated.

She’s been observing the vice president and Tipper Gore sitting in a box

with Gov. Jesse Ventura and his wife watching young Jade Ventura compete

in a horseback riding competition.

The event is over, and the press pool has gone to the hotel, but the

van’s driver refuses to move. Stewing, Fritz reaches for a mobile phone

and demands: ’Can you put me in touch with (press secretary) Chris

Lehane?’ This lady wants help, and no matter how trifling her request

seems in the scheme of things, she goes straight to the top.

This is one of the 150 to 200 calls that Chris Lehane will receive in a

’typical’ day on the campaign trail, some small, some potentially

election-winning. But of course, nothing about this job can be described

as typical.

Whatever is in the back of their minds, on the campaign trail, the

communications pros are concerned with immediate matters, such as

returning phone calls, getting a fix on the next day’s new policy

announcement and putting rumors to rest.

’The vice president’s office is much more structured,’ says Lehane, a

former lawyer who has worked in one capacity or another with Gore

throughout the Clinton administration. ’On the campaign trail, all sorts

of things are happening, things are much more chaotic.

’The nature of this job is not to think beyond what you’re focused on,’

Lehane adds. ’If you start looking beyond what’s in front of you, you’re

not staying focused.’

Bush communications director Karen Hughes is no different in her

attitude toward the task at hand. ’We’re ’first things first’ people,’

she says.

’One of the things about a presidential campaign is you have to manage

on a large scale,’ she says. ’In Texas, you could have 20 reporters at

one of the governor’s press conferences, and that was all you needed to

reach the whole state. Now, you can talk to 30 or 40 reporters to

explain the governor’s position, and still thousands of reporters would

not understand.

The scale (of press operations in a presidential campaign) has only

increased since 1996, with more cable stations and dot-coms. There are

differences in the sheer number of outlets. There’s never been an

election like this.’

Same title, different job

At the end of the election, there will be only one winner. But behind

the scenes, another battle is developing, and that’s the right to be the

next press secretary at the White House. And unlike the main

competition, history suggests it’s anything but a two-horse race. While

Deedee Myers served Bill Clinton for a short time before she was

replaced by Mike McCurry, both George Bush and Ronald Reagan spurned

their presidential campaign press secretaries. Nancy Reagan is said to

have vetoed the ascension of Lyn Nofziger personally, because of his

rumpled appearance, and the post went to Jim Brady. Similarly, Reagan

press secretary Marlin Fitzwater was chosen by Bush when he became

president, getting the nod over Sheila Tate.

And there can be good reasons why campaign press secretaries do not get

the nod to become White House press secretary. According to ex-Clinton

communicator McCurry, who is also a former campaign press secretary for

the 1988 Bruce Babbitt (D-AZ) and 1992 Bob Kerrey (D-NE) presidential

races, ’The campaign press secretary is more marketing and sales than

product development. Your job is to reflect what the candidate


But upon reaching the White House, changes occur in what is expected of

the communications pro who now finds him or herself representing not

just his boss but the institution of the presidency. ’You need to strike

the pose of at least having some degree of objective distance from the

(president). Otherwise you will appear too defensive and be seen as

speaking for the person rather than the office,’ says Terry Michael,

executive director of the Washington Center for Politics &


Even Senate press secretary experience ’does not quite prepare you to

understand the role of policy-making within the federal government,’

McCurry adds. ’You need to know what it takes to work with federal

policymakers who have all the access to information that you need - and

you need to know how to get hold of it.’

Meet the candidates

All of this helps to explain why Hughes and Lehane (and other

communications operatives on both sides) cannot be considered as the

automatic press secretary of choice should their candidate win.

Perhaps the most focused communicator is Bush’s Karen Hughes. Tall and

confident, Hughes can speak with authority for Bush. She is considered

to be a powerful behind-the-scenes advisor to the candidate. One

reporter for a major Midwestern daily says, ’If she becomes press

secretary for George Bush, then she will be the most influential press

secretary since Jody Powell.’

Hughes likes to be on the road because that is where the decisions are

made. The press considers her to be intensely loyal to Bush, and the

governor is said to reciprocate that devotion. The Midwestern reporter

had thought David Beckwith, the former press secretary to Dan Quayle,

would be the leading spokesperson, but soon learned that Hughes is the

go-to person in the Bush operation.

If Hughes were to take the press secretary job in the White House, her

strongest asset would be her closeness to Bush. Reporters would know

that she speaks with authority for her boss given their long-standing,

close relationship.

Hughes has also shown she can quickly absorb the details. Former Texas

GOP chairman Fred Meyer, whom she served under as press secretary and

then executive director, credits her with being a ’good policy person.’

Hughes knows the ins and outs of Bush’s record in Texas, and it was she

who came up with the slogan ’A Reformer with Results’ at a time when it

appeared that McCain might walk off with the reform mantle


But Hughes’ strong ties to Bush could be offset by two attributes. Her

outspoken support of Bush would be unlikely to play well as White House

press secretary if the administration hits trying times. Also, Hughes is

a serious person and may not be adept at humorous jousting with the

White House press corps. And her role as a strategic advisor would

likely suffer given the demands placed upon the press secretary to

prepare for the daily briefings.

But whether Hughes becomes press secretary, there is little doubt that

she would have a significant role to play in a Bush administration, says

former Clinton White House director of media affairs Jeff Eller. ’It’d

be difficult to imagine a communications shop in the Bush White House

without Karen Hughes having a prominent role,’ says Eller, now managing

director of Public Strategies in Austin.

This is why many see Hughes playing the role of a communications

director, much as George Stephanopoulos did, with Deedee Myers in a

supporting role as press secretary to Bill Clinton.

The obvious supporting candidate would have to be Bush campaign senior

advisor and spokesman Ari Fleischer. ’I work for Karen Hughes,’ he says

with obvious deference.

Fleischer started working on the Elizabeth Dole campaign, but was

frustrated by her unwillingness to be more visible in the news media. He

left the campaign and resisted overtures from the Bush camp only to

reemerge with Bush after Dole had dropped out.

Fleischer spends most of his time in Austin, handling reporters’ phone

calls, overseeing news releases and participating in headquarters

strategy sessions.

Fleischer had been communications director for the House Ways & Means

Committee under Rep. Bill Archer (R-TX) starting at the same time the

GOP took control of the House five years ago. His work there proved to

be controversial, and in June 1997 he was the target of a critical

article in GQ by Ruth Shalit that questioned his high profile, penchant

for spin and aggressiveness in dealing with reporters.

Remarks about Fleischer on the campaign trail tend to be more


’He spins. They all do,’ says Dave Yepsen, chief political reporter for

The Des Moines Register. But Yepsen adds, ’I always found him to be

pretty civil and helpful.’

But there are a number of talented GOP operatives with Capitol Hill or

corporate experience that Bush could recruit. As American Association of

Health Plans communications director Mark Merritt notes, ’Over the last

10 years, there’s been a change in Washington. Then, the best and

brightest communicators were working on Capitol Hill and in campaigns.

But now, most are in the private sector.’

Bush’s ’iron triangle’ of advisors - Hughes, campaign manager Joe

Allbaugh and strategist Karl Rove - has been slow to grow its ranks. One

intriguing possibility would be for Bush to try recruiting from

journalism. Tony Snow, for instance, would offer not only ties to the

elder Bush from his work as a White House speechwriter, but also

credibility with the news media and knowledge of the issues from his

work as an opinion columnist and host of Fox News Sunday.

Another is Ed Gillespie, a prominent communicator with GOP ties. A

partner in the strategic consulting firm of Quinn-Gillespie, he helped

John Kasich’s presidential campaign at first and therefore is not a Bush

insider. But Gillespie was tapped to chair the program advisory

committee of the Republican National Convention and has been advising

the Bush campaign since this spring.

What distinguishes the Capitol Hill veteran is that he oversaw policy

and communications at the House Republican Conference and helped to

draft the ’Contract with America.’ He then directed communications at

the Republican National Committee. His work for the GOP majority during

its years of confronting the Clinton administration did not leave any

permanent scars, thanks to an amiable, soft-spoken personality. He has

some feel for the give-and-take. His business partner is a former chief

of staff to VP Gore and a former Clinton White House counsel. But

Gillespie would have to leave a potentially lucrative business venture

if Bush were to recruit him for the press secretary job or some other

post in the administration.

The Gore corps

On the Gore side, Lehane is an obvious favorite, having worked with the

veep for so long and having such a natural affinity with the media.

Lehane is a dervish of perpetual motion on the campaign trail, with an

ever-present smile and cell phone. ’You have to have fun with this job,’

he says, and in a press van heading to a school where Gore and Ventura

will spend the day, one reporter notes that Lehane comes up with ’an

inexhaustible supply of bromides.’ He likes rhyming sentences just like

Muhammad Ali. ’As the days grow longer, Al Gore will become stronger,’

he declared as the campaign passed the summer solstice.

Lehane is more than a stand-up comic, possessing a Harvard Law School

degree. Both law and being press secretary are advocacy jobs, and Lehane

jokes that he is a ’fallen lawyer, but fallen upwards.’

One national political reporter says that Lehane lacks the ’hard edges’

to his personality that Joe Lockhart can display. Lehane sees it

differently, viewing himself to be a disciple of McCurry by injecting

humor into the job and realizing that he needs to play the intermediary

role between the press and the presidential candidate.

Some things that took McCurry years to experience have come quicker to

Lehane, who started working in the White House in 1994. At 33, he has a

well-rounded portfolio for someone his age.

But at a time when Gore has yet to select his running mate, let alone

win the election, nothing is a given. It certainly need not be a

discredit to Lehane if he is given another assignment in a Gore

administration in the manner that happened to McCurry.

’There’s some good talent on the Democratic side,’ insists Steve Akey,

senior vice president with Edelman in Washington. Another candidate by

virtue of proximity and greater experience would be Jim Kennedy. Now

Gore’s director of communications, Kennedy earned his stripes as a

deputy White House press secretary under Lockhart and had previously

been special advisor to the White House counsel. Given Gore’s lingering

problems with the 1996 campaign finance controversy, that probably

explains his presence.

Another contender based on longtime ties to Gore may be Catherine ’Kiki’

McLean, who had been Tipper Gore’s press secretary in the 1992 general

election campaign and then served as Democratic National Committee press

secretary. She had been working on press in the campaign, but decided

not to move to Nashville.

Then there’s Doug Hattaway, the Gore campaign’s national spokesman,

working out of the Nashville headquarters. Hattaway is less visible than

Lehane, but equally important in serving reporters’ requests for


And the winner is ...

In truth, there is no perfect candidate in the bunch. Each one brings

his or her own set of experiences, strengths and limitations. ’Each

White House press secretary is their own person,’ emphasizes USA Today’s

Susan Page. Some, like the low-key Fitzwater, grow on the job. Others,

like the more outgoing McCurry, come with a custom-fit personality. But

for someone to get to the point of even being seriously considered for

the job, their candidate has to win the White House.



Title: Communications director, Bush for President

Resume: TV news reporter; executive director, Republican Party of Texas;

communications director, 1994 Bush gubernatorial campaign;

communications director, governor of Texas

Personal style: Serious and smart. Bush loyalist supreme

Reputation: Strategist-spokesperson doubling as Little League mom;

communications professional who really has a seat at the table

Missing ingredient for White House press secretary: Humor. Lightness of



Title: Senior advisor and spokesman, Bush for President

Resume: Press secretary for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM); deputy

communications director, Bush-Quayle ’92; public relations consultant;

communications director, House Ways & Means Committee

Personal style: Outwardly cool, in-control image. Quick with a quip.

Reputation: Spinning like a DJ at Ways & Means Committee brought him

criticism. Better reviews from presidential campaign press corps

Missing ingredient: Penchant for spin


Title: Host of Fox News Sunday

Resume: Editorial page editor, The Washington Times; director of

speechwriting, Bush White House; deputy assistant to president for media

affairs; syndicated columnist

Personal style: Thoughtful, telegenic

Reputation: Work for the elder Bush and conservatism balanced by

low-key, pleasant manner

Missing ingredient: No outward connection to Bush campaign


Title: Press secretary, Gore 2000

Resume: 1992 Clinton-Gore political director for Maine; special

assistant counsel for the president; special counsel for Andrew Cuomo,

secretary of Housing & Urban Development; Gore’s deputy communications

director; Gore’s press secretary

Personal style: Smart, quick, funny.

Reputation: Attentive to press. Well-rounded portfolio, especially for

someone so young

Missing ingredient: Age (33) may count against him


Title: Director of communications, Office of the Vice President

Resume: Communications director, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT); special

advisor, Office of the White House Counsel; deputy White House press


Personal style: Low-key, substance-oriented press aide

Reputation: Capitol Hill vet tested under fire in special counsel’s


Missing ingredient: Lacks presence of a McCurry or a Lockhart


Title: Partner, Dewey Square Group

Resume: Guest host, MSNBC’s Equal Time; 1992 general election press

secretary and advisor for Tipper Gore; communications director,

Democratic National Committee; 1996 Democratic National Convention

spokesperson; 1997 presidential inaugural communications director

Personal style: Savvy political communicator with good TV presence

Reputation: Knows the DC press corps, the Gores and party pros

Missing ingredient: Stronger political portfolio than governmental



Title: National spokesman

Resume: Former congressional aide; freelance journalist; spokesperson

for Human Rights Campaign; Massachusetts press secretary for 1996

Clinton-Gore campaign; press secretary for Gov. Jeanne Shaheen


Personal style: Less visible, more low-key

Reputation: Solid provider of campaign information

Missing ingredient: Lacks significant federal experience.

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