Nonstop from D.C.

Josh Earnest ’97 talks candidly with his former professor Robert Stein about the job of White House press secretary, the pernicious tribalism infecting civic discourse, leadership lessons from Beer Bike and his new base in Chicago.

Josh Earnest. Photo by Sarah Stathas
Josh Earnest. Photo by Sarah Stathas

One of the joys of being a professor is seeing students turn their academic focus into a career path after graduation. Faculty (and staff, too) provide those first letters of recommendation and nuts-and-bolts job advice. In some cases, the relationship can turn into a lifelong bond as former students turn into colleagues and friends.

When political scientist Robert Stein gets together with former student Josh Earnest, this dynamic plays out in the liveliest of dialogues. Both Stein, the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, and Earnest, who was a political science and policy studies major, are passionate about politics and American political history. And both know how to command a room. Stein, who has an exuberant personality and deep knowledge of public policy, is as entertaining as he is informative. As the White House press secretary and spokesperson for former President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017, Earnest faced a decidedly less enthralled audience on a regular basis. A calm and confident demeanor helped him make the case for the president’s policies and earned the respect of reporters — not to mention that of his boss, who appeared at his very last press briefing to offer thanks and words of praise. “He is not only a great press secretary, but, more importantly, he is a really, really good man, and I’m really, really proud of him.”

It was Stein who introduced Earnest to the world of local political campaigns. Soon after graduation, Earnest volunteered for Lee Brown’s 1997 mayoral campaign. Brown was elected Houston’s first African-American mayor, and Earnest went on to work for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry and in Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign for New York City mayor. After a stint at the Democratic National Committee, he worked on Tom Vilsack’s presidential campaign. Next he joined Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, and subsequently went to work on the White House communications staff for both terms, taking over the podium in 2014.

Last May, Earnest was among the recipients of the Association of Rice Alumni’s Distinguished Alumni Award. We were delighted that both professor and former student made themselves available during Earnest’s Houston visit for a wide-ranging on-the-record conversation. With characteristic enthusiasm, Stein drew out Earnest’s student memories as well as his reflections on White House service and thoughts about his new job as senior vice president and chief communications officer at United Airlines. Earnest and his wife, Natalie Wyeth Earnest, and their two children recently moved from D.C. to Chicago.

Bon Stein interviews Josh Earnest. Photo by Tommy LaVerne
Bon Stein interviews Josh Earnest. Photo by Tommy LaVerne

Robert Stein: What led you to want to attend Rice?

Josh Earnest: I went to a small prep school in Kansas City, so I only had 32 students in my graduating class. The smaller feel of Rice and the residential college system that made it feel even smaller was a big attraction to me. Getting outside of KC and seeing more of the world was an ambition that I had and certainly one my parents were strongly supportive of. I still remember coming into Hobby Airport when I was a senior in high school and going to spend the weekend with a student and hearing the announcements in the airport being repeated in Spanish. Houston was a very different place than where I’d grown up.

RS: Other than your studies in political science and public policy, what experiences outside the classroom helped you?

JE: The thing that is so interesting about my experience at Rice, and I think it’s probably typical of a lot of students, is that I was in an environment where I could experiment and try out some different things. Rice is the kind of place where you could be a kid who never played football, but I could still coach the women’s Powderpuff team. It could be a place where you’d never traveled outside the United States, but my senior year I spent 10 days in Israel, including several nights with a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem to learn about their situation. Also, I was the co-chair of Beer Bike — even though I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was like 12 years old. I wasn’t a natural fit for that opportunity, but I loved it and had a great experience doing it. So this kind of environment … was an important foundation for me as I began to pursue my career.

RS: Were there opportunities for you to venture out in the city in ways you might not have been able to do elsewhere?

JE: I took Bill Martin’s Sociology of Religion class, and one of the assignments was to go to four different houses of worship in Houston. I remember all the places I went, including to Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. It was eye opening to me — to walk in and be one of the few white faces in the room and to be so warmly welcomed. It’s not that I expected hostility, but that kind of sense of community was surprising to me. We went to a Pentecostal church, to a mosque and also a synagogue close to Rice. So I came to a place like Rice where the world felt a lot bigger. I didn’t join the Peace Corps or do anything particularly adventurous, but coming to Rice and Houston at that time of my life felt really adventurous.

RS: You were with Obama during his campaign and then started work for the administration on its first day in 2009. Tell us about this long apprenticeship for the press secretary post.

JE: One of the biggest advantages that I had walking into the job as press secretary was that I had spent over five years watching the daily briefing when it was led by Robert Gibbs and then Jay Carney. So I had a lot of institutional knowledge built up about our policy positions and about how we had described them publicly. When I was the deputy press secretary, I was on the road a lot with President Obama, so that meant a lot of late-night flights and car rides. I heard the president talk about his thoughts and opinions and perspectives and views on a whole wide range of things. I could at least give people a clear sense of or a broad sense of what the president thought about something.

So, if people asked, “What does the president think about X hot-button issue?” I would often say, “Well, I haven’t talked to the president about this lately,” and then I could characterize in general terms, in a way that would hopefully not make breaking news, what he thought. That allowed me to build up a lot of credibility with the White House press corps.

RS: What did you do when you were asked a question at a press conference for which you just didn’t know the answer?

JE: One good piece of advice that I got was to not be afraid to say “I don’t know.” It is much worse to guess and guess wrong in that kind of setting than it is to acknowledge that you don’t know. I would generally commit to following up and getting an answer. Sometimes, we’d just add the answer by putting a note in writing on a transcript. Sometimes I’d just come back to the next day’s briefing and deliver answers. Or I’d just pick up the phone and call a reporter after the briefing and say, “Here’s what I found out.”

There were times where reporters would ask me questions I knew I would not be able to answer, and in those settings, what I found to be the most effective and disarming way to handle that is just to acknowledge it and say, “When we’re ready to reveal that piece of information, I’ll make sure that you’re among the first to know.” Reporters would chuckle, because they didn’t want to be among the first — they wanted to be THE first. Another way was just to say, “I’ll go check on this, but I don’t really think I’m going to have an answer I’m going to be able to share with you.”

That kind of candor and trying to minimize the amount of game playing and Kabuki theatre involved was helpful for my credibility. At least I was being honest and direct about the fact that I wasn’t able to be honest and direct about the information they were seeking.

RS: How did you explain to the press or to the American public a policy idea that the president or cabinet members wanted to push?

JE: The way that I thought about this was that the daily briefing was a venue for vetting ideas. It’s certainly where members of the press would hold people in power accountable and demand transparency. That is what they should do. It’s also a venue for the administration to try to advance a particular set of policies or perspective on those policies.

So the approach that I took was if we as an administration believed deeply that what we’re doing is the right thing to do and we’re doing it for the right reasons, then the more that people can understand about that policy — what we’re doing and why we think it’s the right thing to do — the more likely they are to be persuaded by it. If we could get a fair hearing and marshal the best evidence and the best arguments, then we were likely to have some impact on not just the political debate in Washington, but the broader debate across the country.

I loved that challenge. You know I played sports in high school and played a lot of sports at Rice and that notion of competition has always gotten me out of bed in the morning. Also, that sense of we’ve got some good ideas here and we’re going to go and win this debate, so let’s go out there and wage this fight — even in the face of people paid to be skeptical about it.

RS: When did it not work? Obviously, there were more frustrations than there were successes during the eight years of the Obama presidency. How did you handle all that?

JE: The most discouraging thing about politics now is that there are a lot of very common sense things that don’t get done because of the tribal nature of our politics. Just because it’s somebody else’s idea or somebody else is trying to do the common sense thing, if they’re not wearing the same color jersey that we are, then we’re going to do our best to stop them.

In some ways, the Trans Pacific Partnership is probably the best example of this. And the reason it’s such an interesting example is that there was sort of famously bipartisan opposition to it, even though the people who were expressing their rigid opposition didn’t have a better idea. And even though the kinds of forces the TPP was meant to confront are almost inevitable in terms of the growing economic power that’s wielded by China and the growing influence of the Asian economy on the global economy. There were some in the mainstream of the Republican Party who were supportive of it. But to see that [strategy] cast aside not just by the Republican nominee for president, but also the Democratic nominee, was really discouraging.

Josh Earnest in his Chicago office. Photo by Sarah Stathas
Josh Earnest in his Chicago office. Photo by Sarah Stathas

RS: What was your experience of the relationship between the press secretary and the president?

JE: My predecessor, Mike McCurry, who was President Clinton’s press secretary, made note of the geography in the West Wing: The office that is traditionally inhabited by the press secretary in the West Wing is equidistant from the Oval Office and the White House briefing room. And he thought that that was a pretty good illustration of the role of the press secretary — which is to try to protect the relationship between the institution of the press and the institution of the presidency.

RS: And also with the press?

JE: The way I looked at it was, in any relationship between the White House press corps and the president, there will be friction. And the day that there isn’t that friction is the day that people on one side or the other aren’t doing their job. If there’s ever a day when the White House press corps walks in and says, “Well, you guys are getting totally transparent. You’ve given us everything that we’ve wanted to know and answered all of our questions. Thank you very much,” is the day that those independent reporters have stopped doing their job.

They’re supposed to always ask for more, press for more and demand greater accountability and transparency. So I tried to look for opportunities to allow that friction to be there, but not to let it get so hot that it clouds coverage of the White House.

On the other hand, it’s easy for the president or other senior officials from the White House to get frustrated by the repeated demands of the White House press corps, of the skeptical questioning, etc. A natural, human reaction would be to withdraw or not want to call a reporter back and to not do a daily briefing, for example. Or go a couple of weeks or months or, in the case of this administration, almost a year without doing a news conference. That also is bad for the relationship.

Being able to broker both sides and maintain credibility with both sides is the approach that I took in terms of trying to serve the president, be accountable to the press corps, but also, at the end of the day, fulfill a responsibility that I had to the American people.

RS: So you were like a referee, in a way?

JE: People ask, “Oh, did you ever feel pulled in both directions?” And the answer is no. I never felt pulled in both directions. There’s one guy who hired me. There’s one guy whose proverbial name was on the door. So that’s the person whom I was accountable to. But I knew I could serve him best if I had credibility and a good relationship with the press corps. That was also consistent with his desire as president of the United States to ensure that we’re upholding the institution of a free and independent professional media.

RS: With all these demands, how did you balance a personal and professional life?

JE: My son was born two months after I started the press secretary job. We’d also just bought a house, so it was a busy time in my life. My life was as full as it’s ever been, definitely. My wife had been in a senior position as an assistant secretary in the Department of the Treasury. So after my son was born, she made the decision to stay home with him. She had firsthand experience and understood very well the unique demands of the job that I had, and I could not have asked for a more supportive and understanding spouse and partner in that circumstance.

The thing that was hardest, particularly, was that his waking hours were between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and my working [hours] exceeded that. So it was not uncommon during the first few months of his life where I would put him to bed on a Sunday night at around 7 p.m. and I would not see him again until 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, even if I hadn’t left town.

At the end of 2014, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to make sure that I would have one day each week where I would get home before he went to bed. There was more than one occasion where I’d sneak out, try to be home by 5 or 5:30, and my phone would ring at 6:15 p.m., and the chief of staff was wanting to talk to me, and I had to say, “Can I call you back in like 90 minutes?” And he would say, “Yes, just call me back when you can.” Being home one night a week is never really a balance, but it lightened the burden and the stresses of a demanding job and a new first-time parent.

RS: What were your worst and best experiences as press secretary?

JE: The most difficult experience I had as press secretary was the day after the 2016 election. From a personal perspective, like most people across the country, including I think just about everybody who worked on the Trump campaign, I was very surprised by the outcome. The second reason that it was a difficult message to receive is that President Trump had centered his campaign on running against and vowing to undo everything that we in the Obama administration had been working on for the last eight years. And so it felt like a strong repudiation of our efforts, not just by presidential candidate Donald Trump, but by the country.

Working in the White House is not nearly glamorous as it seems, but it’s so rewarding and fulfilling. It requires a profound commitment. So to dedicate your life to something for more than eight years, if you include the almost two years that I worked on the presidential campaign, and to have it be repudiated by the country — or at least it certainly felt that way — it was very disappointing.

The other thing that was hard about it from a tactical perspective is that President Obama himself had spent most of the last six months, basically the last six months of 2016, saying things like, “If candidate Trump wins this election, he’s going to repeal the Affordable Care Act and millions of people are going to lose access to health care. We’re going to see all our progress on climate change roll back. He said things like, “I wouldn’t trust candidate Trump with the nuclear codes.” And the next day, I have to stand in front of the White House podium on live television and answer the question “Is President Obama really concerned about handing the nuclear codes over to President Trump? Or was that campaign rhetoric, and he didn’t really mean it? If he did really mean it, why is he following through on a commitment to smooth an effective transition?”

And that was a hard line to walk, particularly because the president earlier that day had gone in the Rose Garden, had promised to preside over a transition and give his successor the best opportunity to succeed. So it wasn’t as if I could go out there and continue to criticize President Trump, but I also didn’t back away from the criticism that President Obama and, in certain situations, I had personally leveled, in the context of the campaign.

Relatively early that morning my colleague Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director, and I agreed to bring our staff together to have a conversation about the outcome of the election and what our responsibilities as a department were going to be moving forward and how we were going to navigate this transition period. I think around 10 or 10:30, we summoned everybody into my office in the West Wing, and we’re having the conversation and then the president’s assistant comes and knocks on my door and says, “Josh, the president wants to see you.”

So I stood up and tiptoed around the room to get by all the people who were sitting on the floor to excuse myself and walked into the Oval Office and the president wanted to have a discussion about what he wanted to say and where he wanted to say it. But when he heard that my staff was in my office talking about the outcome of the election, he said, “Let’s just have them all come in.”

These are speechwriters and researchers and people who worked on our digital team, and this included the most junior members of our staff, as well as senior members. Some of them had never been in the Oval Office before, let alone with the president of the United States.

In that setting, the president basically gave a short informal early version of the remarks that he would give to the country a couple of hours later in the Rose Garden. He had this line that history doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags, and it put the president in a situation where he was genuinely comforting people. It gave me a deep appreciation for his character and his skills as a leader, both in an intimate setting like that but also in a setting on the world stage.

[At the press briefing], I was determined to make clear that we were not going to shy away from an aggressive defense of the work that we’d done over the previous eight years. We’re not going to shy away from the criticism that our administration and Democrats and even President Obama himself have leveled against President-elect Trump, and to reiterate the President’s commitment to preserving our democracy and abiding by the will of the people and by the outcome of the election and doing what President Bush had done for him — even though the change in the president represented a change in party and a profound change in governing philosophy, that President Obama was committed to, ensuring that that transition took place smoothly, consistent with our norms and traditions as a democracy.

RS: I’ll give you an opportunity to reflect on what was your best moment.

JE: I grew up playing baseball and was a lifelong Kansas City Royals fan. Through a remarkable turn of events, 30 years after winning the World Series in 1985, they won the World Series in 2015, which coincided with my tenure in the White House. So it meant that I was the White House press secretary when they came to the White House to celebrate their World Series championship. My assistant had conspired with the spokesperson for the Royals, whom I’d gotten to know over the previous couple of years, to have the Royals’ manager, their star catcher and their star first baseman come as a surprise to my briefing on the day that they’re visiting the White House. They presented me with a Royals jersey with my name on the back and an autographed baseball. One of the White House photographers just snuck into the back of the White House briefing room that day and took this great picture of me standing next to the White House podium, holding up the Royals jersey with my name on the back almost like I’m a No. 1 draft pick.

And one of the other things about celebrating professional sports teams is the tradition of celebrating their championships at the White House. Usually those championship teams are like the New England Patriots and the New York Yankees, and they’ve got a huge fan base, especially in Washington, D.C. But Kansas City Royals don’t have the same kind of fan base and following, so I reassured the White House social secretary, who is responsible for planning the events, that if they needed people to fill seats, I could find plenty of Earnests from Kansas City to fill those seats, and they generously allowed me to do so. So I had a large number of family members sitting in the East Room for that celebration, and it was a really memorable experience, both because of my longtime love for the Kansas City Royals, but also because it was an opportunity for me to share the experience of working in the White House and doing something fun in the White House with my wife and my son and my parents and my brothers and a couple of my cousins.

RS: Do you see similarities between the job of press secretary and your new role at United Airlines?

JE: The thing that I loved most about the White House is that I would wake up in the morning, get ready to go to work and not know exactly what I was going to learn about that day. The airline business is complicated and fascinating. In this role, I’ll have opportunities to learn a lot about the airline business. I’m also going to learn a lot about the day-to-day challenges of running a global Fortune 100 company. That appeals to me too. It feels like the right next step and stage of my career.

When I was working in the White House, my job was always a source of fascination, whether you’re Democrat or Republican. I’m finding that the airline business is sort of the same way. Everybody’s got an opinion about the airline that they regularly fly. Everyone has a story about their most recent experience in the air.

RS: Rice encourages students to pursue what’s called experiential learning — you were doing that well before it was common. How did it pay off?

JE: Bob, I still remember coming to your office in March of 1997. I tell people all the time that my classmates were getting great jobs at Enron, you know. You were so generous with your invitation to introduce me to people and to help me find my footing in the local political scene in Houston. I recognized what a tremendous opportunity that was, and that if I put in the effort then I was likely to see that pay off. It did in ways that I still benefit from to this day.