At the end of Sean Spicer’s debut press briefing at the dawn of the Donald Trump presidency, a journalist remarked to me: “I feel like I’m back at school.” I replied: “I feel like I’m back in Zimbabwe,” alluding to my days as an Africa correspondent reporting on the autocratic Robert Mugabe.
Four years on, Jen Psaki delivered the first briefing of Joe Biden’s administration from the same lectern in the same room. Spicer redux it was not.
Just compare their remarks about the press. “Some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting,” Spicer scowled in reference to Trump’s inauguration, adding darkly: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.”
Psaki, by contrast, began the new era with a smile: “It’s an honour to be here with all of you. When the president asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.”
Later she added: “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy.”
The 42-year-old’s maiden briefing on Wednesday was radical in its normality and startling in its civility. Polished and professional, she arrived wearing a mask, breaking from Trump tradition, and told a dozen physically distanced reporters: “There will be moments when we disagree, and there will certainly be days where we disagree for extensive parts of the briefing even, perhaps. But we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”
Even chalk and cheese, even matter and antimatter have more in common than this tone and the president who railed against “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”.
Spicer, who once claimed that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons, was succeeded by Sarah Sanders, who was caught in a lie about the firing of FBI director James Comey. Then there was Stephanie Grisham, who never held a briefing, so that the lectern literally gathered dust, and finally Kayleigh McEnany, who ended each briefing with a made-for-Fox-News takedown of the media.
Was it, after all, just a dream? Now comes Psaki, a veteran of Barack Obama’s White House and state department, instantly turning the clock back to the norms – things like facts, science and not yelling insults at reporters – of that era. For a Doctor Who fan it would be like getting your favorite Doctor back after four regenerations really went off the rails.
There was some poetic justice in this. In a memorable photo from 9 November 2016, members of White House staff look shellshocked as Obama talks to them in the rose garden about Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Psaki is at the centre of the picture, looking ashen-faced. Now the circle has turned.
Whereas Spicer merely delivered a tirade on his debut – falsely claiming that Trump had the biggest-ever inauguration crowd – and took no questions, Psaki lingered for half an hour and fielded many. Some of the first came from Peter Alexander of NBC News, whom Trump once branded “a terrible reporter” in this room for daring to ask him about the coronavirus.
Speaking of the virus, there was no happy talk of injecting disinfectant, rounding the bend or declaring victory. Psaki talked about Biden’s opening flurry of executive orders, which include a “100 days masking challenge” and rejoining the World Health Organization. She promised that public health experts would soon be giving briefings again.
“The issue that he wakes up every day focused on is getting the pandemic under control,” she said. “The issue that he goes to bed every night focused on is getting the pandemic under control.”
Trump, by all accounts, went to bed every night focused on cable news and raining hellfire on Twitter.
There were even serious foreign policy questions about Brazil, the Iran nuclear deal and where Biden might take his first overseas trip (no news yet). Psaki said Biden opposed the death penalty. And, as was typical in the Obama years, there was evasiveness on difficult points such as whether Biden supported Trump being convicted in the Senate impeachment trial.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, tweeted: “First non-weird White House Press Secretary in four years.”
Even Psaki’s parting shot was something seldom heard in the past four years, when briefings were a scarce commodity. “Thank you, everyone,” she said. “Let’s do this again tomorrow.”