By Anthony Cruz
Richard L. “Jake” Siewert served as White House Press Secretary during the Clinton administration and in the Treasury Department under the Obama administration. He is currently Global Head of Corporate Communications for Goldman Sachs.
Could you describe what life is like as the White House Press Secretary? Did you ever get nervous at the podium in front of the White House Press Corps?
JS: You can’t help but be nervous. My first times at the podium were typically just to introduce someone when I was Deputy Press Secretary. I was never answering any questions at that point. But even then you are nervous!
[The reporters] put you on your guard right away and you just have to be aware from the very first second you’re up there that you can make a mistake. But like anything else you eventually get used to it. It’s a very intense job because you spend all morning trying to make sure that you have every possible question covered and that you know exactly what the White House wants to say about it. You get up there and it’s live fire. You don’t get any Q-cards, possibly a book. But you don’t get much chance to refer to it when you are under the gun. But a fun job in a lot ways.
What was your relationship like with the media?
JS: I have some great friends in the media, both people I met at the White House, people I met who covered political campaigns, people who covered economics or banking. I respect what reporters do. They have to write virtually every day. These days, sometimes three to four times a day. They get heavily criticized if they make even the smallest mistake. I know that because sometimes I was the one doing the criticizing. It’s a high-pressure job and really an important one. I have friends who dedicate their lives to that.
Having said that, when you’re dealing with them professionally, it’s professional. The friendship might mean when they are off camera their tone is less adversarial, but they are still doing their job and they need to do their job. You have to understand it’s not personal when they take a tough tack at what the president is doing. But when you are younger that’s a lot harder to understand. You tend to get a little caught up in the battles of the day. You are caught, as many have said before, in the role of the White House Press Secretary, needing to understand the press’ point of view and represent it inside the White House, but then when you are with the press, understand the White House’s point of view and represent that to the press. You play a very unusual role because most people inside the White House are loyalists to the president who are trying to achieve his or her goals and have very little tolerance for the press’ job and what they do. So you have to be the one explaining why it might make sense for the president to hold a press conference and answer some of these questions or why it may make sense to allow the press access to a meeting that they think they have the right to cover when the White House prefers to keep them out of. So you are in this unique bridging role.
How are your roles as the Global Head of Corporate Communications Goldman Sachs and your duties as WH Press Secretary similar and different?
JS: Both deal a lot with the media. But it is very different here. Even on your worst day here, you are not seeing the volume or interest as you do at the White House on a daily basis. You have more time in the corporate world to think ahead, to plan, to be a little more selective in what you choose to publicize and what you don’t. At the White House you have no choice but to deal with everything. When you wake up in the morning, there are five or six things happening in the world that the White House has to respond to at some level. There are many things that Goldman Sachs does not need to have a position on. There are a lot things happening in the world where it’s not clear that you have to have an opinion. But today with what is happening in Ukraine, the White House has to have a view on that. Goldman Sachs or General Motors or whoever does not need to have a fully developed view on that. It is very, very different.
The similarities are that the press corps that covers finance is very smart, very diligent, and they are more focused. The White House Press Corps could be easily distracted by the next thing that comes along. Here, they have often covered the industry for 10, 15, or 20 years and they know it very well. They can sometimes drill a lot deeper than someone that has been at the White House for four years and has covered 2,000 issues in those years.
This interview contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.
This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.
Image courtesy of http://www.goldmansachs.com.