What is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the name Jen Psaki? Is it ‘nice’? Probably not. That’s a good thing in her opinion. Psaki doesn’t want to be described as nice. She actually defines the word as sexist.
No problem, Jen. Trust me when I say I’ll never refer to Joe Biden’s White House press secretary as nice. Psaki is the latest member of the Biden administration to be fawned over in Vogue magazine. Anna Wintour is so excited to have a Democrat back in the White House that we can expect these kinds of cringe-worthy fluff pieces for the next three and a half years. This piece is written by Lizzie Widdicombe and Psaki is photographed by the legendary Annie Leibovitz. There is plenty of painting Psaki as having a spine of steel, an unflappable spokesperson for Biden, that sort of text. It gets weird, though, when Psaki launches into her objection to being introduced to a foreign delegation at the White House, and the person making the introductions made the mistake of telling the visitors, “She’s a really nice person.”
At one point, she tells me that she hates when people describe her as “nice.” “It is like nails on a chalkboard,” she says. “And it still happens. I was introduced to a foreign delegation in the hallway the other day as ‘This is Jen. You may have seen her do the briefings. She’s a really nice person.’ I’m like, Really? You can’t think of a better description?” The word is sexist and a little diminishing, but, she says, “it’s also this desire to put people in a box. Yes, sometimes I’m friendly and joyful, and sometimes I’m tough, and sometimes I’m straightforward.” After shadowing Psaki for a bit, I start to think that her real gift is her ability to be several of these things at the same time. Many of her cheerful quips are actually ways of shutting down a line of questioning. When there’s information the administration is not ready to share yet, she’ll respond with a chipper “Stay tuned!” or “Buckle up!” Or she’ll brush aside questions about tense dealmaking by chirping, “Democracy in action!”
The word is “sexist and a little diminishing”? I’m not sure why that is a restrictive adjective that puts her in a box, either. Most people would appreciate the description. It’s a personal acknowledgment, not a comment on her professional abilities. It isn’t a dismissive remark.
The writer of the piece is quick to say that Psaki is wonderful because she calls on so many White House reporters during press briefings. That’s her job. With the glowing press coverage the Biden administration receives every day, why wouldn’t she call on everyone? The only reporter who asks real questions like a journalist is FNC’s White House correspondent, Peter Doocy. He is regularly shut out by Biden during press conferences and has to yell a question as Biden exits in order to be included but Psaki calls on him regularly. She frequently answers with snarky responses not used with the others in the room. See, she’s not Kayleigh McEnany and that’s important, according to the liberal reporter writing the piece. She has “a mixture of warmth, humor, intelligence, and edge.”
On Twitter, her fans deployed a hashtag for moments when she dispensed with a foolish or spuriously framed question: #PsakiBomb. In one clip, Peter Doocy, of Fox News, attempts to knock her off course. “I just heard you describe the infrastructure negotiations as the ‘art of seeking common ground,’ ” he says. “At some point, does that become the ‘The Art of the Deal’?” Psaki shoots back, “I don’t know. You’re the professional here, Peter. You’re the TV star….What’s the Fox chyron gonna be?”
C’mon. That’s a clever way to frame his question but Doocy is employed by Fox so he must be smacked down – “You’re the TV star.” She tries to make him into the Biden administration’s version of Jim Acosta.
David Axelrod is quoted as saying she is the best press secretary in his lifetime. Then Psaki is complimented for more calm press briefings than in the previous administration but one veteran reporter notes there’s a lack of transparency with the administration. And, he admits the Obama administration was “famously harsh with the press.” Oops. I thought Trump was the first to be mean to the press.
The White House reporters I speak to more or less agree. They appreciate her practice of calling on everyone, including Doocy, and her civility, even when she’s implying that a story they’ve written is daft. The Times’s Peter Baker, who’s been on the White House beat since the George W. Bush administration, says that Psaki’s tenure feels like a return to an earlier era. “She’s lowered the temperature and gotten us back to a more stable, if adversarial, relationship.” On the downside, he adds, “the briefings are not exceptionally informative”—a trend that he notes didn’t begin with Psaki. And, despite Biden’s garrulous reputation, “they’ve been pretty buttoned up and tight with information—much to our frustration at times.”
Obama-world was famously harsh with the press. “Some people have this mistaken belief that it was warm and cozy,” Baker tells me. “But they really didn’t hold back from telling us all the ways they thought we were stupid.” Psaki recalls of the Obama people, “They’re my friends, and they are some of absolutely the most talented and best people I worked with in politics, but the culture was to yell at reporters, slam the phone down.”
The Obama administration famously spied on reporters and Obama told Democrats to boycott FNC. Psaki is a veteran of that administration. Her resting face smirk is often aimed at Doocy. Most of the media is continuing to run cover for Biden and his flailing administration. They all voted for him. Outside the Democrat bubble, I don’t think Psaki has much to worry about with people describing her as ‘nice’.
According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the most important thing about speaking on Biden’s behalf is getting the tone right. https://t.co/Y5JmvDaBP5
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) August 9, 2021