Blue State Blues: The Prayer of the Press Secretary

Blue State Blues: The Prayer of the Press Secretary

The daily briefing by the White House press secretary in the James S. Brady Briefing Room is one of the only major public meetings in the United States to begin without a prayer or moment of silent reflection.

Think about that.

Elsewhere, across the nation — in dense liberal cities, no less than sparse conservative towns — every gathering of more than a few souls begins with an acknowledgement of God as the Creator. Usually, the name of His son, Jesus, is invoked as well; but our country is a melting pot, and we have adapted by incorporating other faiths into a daily invocation.

Except at the White House.

Over on Capitol Hill, each day’s session of the House and the Senate begins with a prayer. The moment is missed by many: few members of each chamber attend the opening of any proceedings — or, really, any part of the proceedings, save when there are votes to cast or events of historical importance. 

The viewing public rarely tunes in for the invocation — except, suddenly, when it does.

During the impeachment trials of President (and former President) Donald Trump, the invocation was the one serious moment, a brief, somber pause in the never-ending partisan battle.

Some have raised objections to the practice of invocation even in these settings. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the opening of the cherished Bill of Rights,  declares: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

What is the daily practice of invocation, critics argue, other than an “establishment” of religion? 

The invocation tells Americans that religion — and, usually, the Christian faith — is an essential part of the government, without which public affairs cannot commence.

Surely, if we have a separation of church and state, Congress should begin deliberations with a bang of the gavel, and nothing more?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the White House does, in fact, observe some trappings of religious observance.

The tradition of the White House Christmas tree dates back to the administration of Calvin Coolidge, possibly the most libertarian president in the history of the country.

The tree has been joined since the Jimmy Carter administration by the White House menorah-lighting ceremony, for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. And in the heat of the war on Islamic terror, George W. Bush still managed to host the first White House iftar meal for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Still, the press briefing goes without.

The press secretary emerges from behind a handle-less door, strides to the podium, opens a binder, nods to the throng of journalists, and begins speaking. Often, the press secretary begins speaking even before reaching the podium. 

As the briefing begins, he (and, more often over the past several years, she) launches into the president’s agenda for the day, attempting to set the tone for media coverage, putting the administration’s spin on controversial topics before opening the floor to questions. 

This is the daily link between the American people and their president, mediated on the one hand by a cantankerous gaggle of jaded journalists, and on the other by a partisan official who has managed to seize the most coveted communications job in the world. 

And it is a cacophony of noise, a battle of talking points, a conflagration of vanities and passions.

Some in the White House press corps believe their job is to press the administration for details about important matters of public interest; others — depending on the party identity of the president — believe it is their role to hold the administration accountable, or (alternatively) to help it better communicate its message.

On the administration’s side, the goal of the briefing is to use the media to amplify a political message, and to push back against messages that could hurt the president’s political standing. That means providing a wealth of information on some topics, and withholding information on others. 

It is a delicate dance in a Democratic administration, when the press has to pretend it wants to put up a fight. During a Republican administration, it is far more combative, a scene in a kung fu movie where the protagonist must spar with a mass of opponents. But it is always chaotic.

The public often ignores the White House press briefings, unless things go wrong — that is, when the press secretary commits an embarrassing gaffe, or makes the mistake of being unusually candid; or when a reporter, trying to grandstand for the cameras, asks a baldly partisan question.

But the nation’s political reporters are always watching — and, during major news events, the rest of the country is watching as well — watching a country constantly at odds with itself, a country of shouted questions and evasive replies, a “United States” that never unites.

There ought to be a healthy tension between the White House and the press, but we have exceeded that.

One answer would be to introduce a prayer at the opening of each briefing. 

A prayer would instantly change the mood in the room, from one of confrontation to one of unity — or, at least, of humility. 

By reminding the journalists present — and himself, or herself — that all were being watched by a higher power, the press secretary could inject a measure of additional decorum, perhaps chastening those who might be tempted to grandstand for the audience at home, or express partisan sentiments.

A prayer could also remind the journalists and administration that they had a commonality of purpose.

On July 3, 2019, I made the suggestion of a prayer in the briefing room to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the press secretary for President Donald Trump. 

Joel B. Pollak