Throughout my eclectic career as a communications professional, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best public and media relations individuals in the country. And with very few exceptions, women were either my direct supervisor or vital peers. My long-time boss at Toys “R” Us, Kathleen Waugh, who headed public relations for the toy company for years, is fierce, driven, and whip-smart. She is my most treasured mentor.
Similarly, when I helped lead a climate change project for the United Nations, I was blessed twice, working with Kalee Kreider, who was former Vice President Al Gore’s long-time spokesperson and climate advisor, and Sahar Wali, who had worked throughout the Obama administration. Kalee and Sahar not only gave me an invaluable course on understanding climate change, but blew me away with their professionalism, intelligence, and deft handling of the media. I’m a better man, and a better climate advocate, because of these two.
All three of these women remain very close friends, each still very successful, wonderfully compassionate and with gifted senses of humor. They are among the most important individuals in my life, and I name them (at the risk of being scolded) because I’m proud of the incredible influence women have had on this man’s career.
As someone who has been a cheerleader for women in the communications industry, and as a self-identified “comms geek,” the recent announcement that President-elect Joe Biden named the first all-female core-communications team, including two lesbians, was exhilarating. Candidly, I always thought I might be the first gay White House press secretary, but alas, I went on to better, if not bigger things.
Biden went big, choosing Jen Psaki, as White House press secretary, Kate Bedingfield as communications director, Karine Jean-Pierre, as deputy press secretary, and Pili Tobar, as deputy White House communications director. Jean-Pierre and Tobar are not only people of color, but they are lesbians as well. This is a proud and triumphant moment for a diverse and stellar group of professionals, and for the LGBTQ+ community.
Though we recently had two females as White House press secretaries (this column will not comment on those individuals), and Dana Perino, who served as President George W. Bush’s last White House press secretary, I decided to reach out to the very first female spokesperson. Dee Dee Myers was appointed by Bill Clinton as White House press secretary after his election in 1992. She served in that role for Clinton's first two years in office.
Times have changed since that day nearly 30 years ago when Myers was surprisingly selected for what had otherwise been a man’s job. “No woman had ever been White House press secretary, and I was also young at 31, and from California, so that was a trifecta of how not to walk into that job,” Myers recalled, with a chuckle, during our recent phone conversation. “It was very challenging since many people initially questioned my authority, my experience, and whether I was tough enough. I felt like I had to continually prove myself despite that fact that I had worked on numerous campaigns before and proved myself over and over again during the 1992 election.”
Myers felt as if she was taking a machete and hacking her way through unchartered territory, and part of that was dealing with chauvinistic superficiality. “No question that people paid attention to what I was wearing and my appearance, which still happens to some degree today, but rarely, if ever, happens with men,” Myers said. “It might have made my job a little easier if I had paid attention to the way I looked, but there were more important things to concentrate on; however, this new group won’t necessarily have to deal with those issues since they’ve all held high level positions in past administrations and have been on TV many times before.”
One of the fascinating things about walking into the press secretary job for Myers was the fact that Clinton was only the second Democrat in the previous 24 years to land in the White House, with President Jimmy Carter’s one term falling between Presidents Nixon and Ford, and then Presidents Reagan and Bush. “Those first two years were challenging because we had to rebuild a Democratic infrastructure, so it’s not like today where Biden can tap experienced personnel from both the Clinton and Obama administrations.”
Which is one of the reasons Myers is thrilled with the new Biden/Harris all female team. “They are all tested professionals, so my first reaction was this is an ‘A’ team,” explained Myers. “The depth and breadth of their experience is what I noticed first, even before the facts that they were all women, and two of them were lesbians. I think that this team is reflective of more women being given greater opportunities to rise, whether it’s in government, industry or the private sector. When women are empowered, they succeed. This team is going to crush it.”
Would that mean that the team would need to crush all of the lies reporters have been fed from that briefing room podium for the last four years? How will the media react to the return of normalcy and honesty? “I have talked to a lot of reporters, and I’m sure you have too, and they are excited about the prospect of a fact-based relationship again,” said a relieved Myers. “The information they get from the podium will be reliable once again. Rather than having to spend lots of time going back and fact checking everything that comes from the White House spokespeople, reporters can go back to looking at the broader implications of policy and how that’s affecting the American people. Reporters can be reporters again rather than constant fact checkers.”
As honest, competent women — and two members of our community — ascend to the highest public relations offices in the land, does Myers have any advice for the new Biden/Harris communications team?
“I don’t think it’s any different than advice that I would give to a male communications team. They already know that you represent the president and the vice president and that your boss is really the people of the United States of America, and not a political party. They need to remember that it’s a privilege to be there. And, to treat everything you say with the weight of history, not just about what it means for that day, and to be transparent and truthful. Finally, enjoy it! This will be a very special time in their lives, and I know that they will carry their jobs with honor, and that they’ll all be great.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.