In 2008, Jay Carney went from covering the White House to lying for the White House. Carney’s lies weren’t unusual among his media colleagues, but unlike them he began lying in an official capacity, assuring his former colleagues that his bosses were completely unaware of what they were doing.
Carney went from covering the presidential campaign for TIME and CNN to covering up for the same people he had been covering. He didn’t do it for the money. TIME was paying Carney $60,000 more than Obama would. He did it because he believed.
You don’t take on the thankless job of being Biden’s Director of Communications when you have a prestigious position at the top of your profession because your big dream involves chasing after the gaffes of a professional idiot whose whiskey-pickled brain has convinced him that he’s a political genius.
You take it because you believe in the agenda.
Jay Carney was a compulsive liar who truly believed in the cause he was lying for. Like the Communist hacks he had dealt with while working in TIME’s Moscow Bureau, he had faith in the revolution.
In 2008, while still working for TIME, he praised Obama’s “refreshingly non-ideological declaration about how best to govern” and called it a “welcome change from the ideology-first recent past.”
“Are conservatives really so blind to Gov. Sarah Palin’s true liabilities that they believe this is the reason she was mauled in the press? How appalling,” he ranted.
During the election, Carney had cheered for Obama and booed McCain. He had “fact checked” Republican press releases while drawing pink hearts on anything that came from Obama Inc.
It was as if he had already been on Obama’s payroll without bothering to inform his bosses.
Before Obama began paying him $172,000 a year to lie, Jay Carney was lying for him on his own. But it was when Carney began being paid to lie, when the content of his lies was dictated to him by the White House, when he had to stand in front of his former colleagues and recite the talking points that he used to organically insert into his TIME screeds that everything went wrong.
On his first day on the job, he was already in his familiar defensive mode looking and sounding like a yuppie complaining about a spoiled organic banana. “Look, he is leading,” he whined. “He led for two years. I mean, this is a president who had done big things. He has tackled hard issues.”
Despite his experience on the other side of the table and his claim that he liked being up there, he was nervous and uncomfortable. Carney had been a good liar when he was reporting on the White House, but he was a bad liar as the White House Press Secretary.
Carney sweated and mumbled, he showed a hundred liar’s tells from sudden abruptness to looking down. Robert Gibbs, his predecessor, had played the cheerful jackass. Carney was forced into the role of a little boy with a pocketful of stolen candy overcompensating to hide his fear of being caught.
Whatever revolutionary faith had taken him from TIME to the White House had deserted him at the podium. A briefing with Carney meant hearing a hundred “I Don’t Knows” and a thousand talking point buzzwords of the week. “Sensible,” “Common sense,” “Winning the future” and “investing in the future” were just some of the soulless slogans that he mumbled like magic formulas against the truth.
It was clumsy hackwork. The press corps already knew the talking points. They were only useful for selling the product to the public which wasn’t watching the press briefing.
Carney’s job was to make it look like the White House believed the lies it was telling the media so that its political allies in the press could claim plausible deniability when they dismissed the scandals. Instead he was talking to his former colleagues as if they were the chumps who read their own papers and watched their own broadcasts.
He was treating the media like the public and there wasn’t a worse insult than that.
Jay Carney didn’t get better with time. He got worse until the enduring meme of his career was the words “At no point in time was the Obama Administration aware of what the Obama Administration was doing” running above and below his perpetually befuddled face.
On Friday, the day when bad news is dumped on a lazy media and a bored public, he followed the VA’s Eric Shinseki out the door. Top Democrats had demanded Shinseki’s head in the hopes of holding on to the Senate, but Obama popped in to give Carney a personal sendoff.
And if Carney seemed less than enthusiastic, uncomfortably cracking jokes and taking Obama’s awkward hug with the good grace of a victim of the Boston Strangler, it may just have been him.
Or it may have been something else.
Why did Jay Carney fail so miserably? A clue can be found in his predecessor and his successor. Robert Gibbs was a professional press secretary who had spent decades in politics. Josh Earnest, Carney’s successor, is a newer creature cut from the same cloth. Gibbs never lost any credibility while lying. That was his whole job. He never believed in anything because that would have just gotten in the way.
Carney however represented a media that shamelessly loved Obama, but whose true love was not reciprocated by the White House.
Obama didn’t love his media fans. He treated them with contempt. He locked them in closets and cut them out of the loop. He passed along photos from a White House photographer while closing events to the press. His people reacted to any negative news story with furious phone calls and threats. Reporters who challenged him were fired or smeared. And there were allegations of worse.
The Obama White House was paranoid when it came to the press and Carney was a member of the press brought in to deceive and manipulate his former colleagues. Like an informant at a cop party, he could never really fit in. The awkward hug was the physical manifestation of a behind-the-scenes reality.
Carney was a media rat there to sell out his own kind. Instead of affirming what he believed, he denied what he knew to be true. His old job had been to tell a story, his new job was to say as little as possible.
He had joined Obama Inc. in pursuit of the progressive spirituality of political meaning only to kill his own soul.
Whatever he believed in had died a miserable death at that podium.
Jay Carney had taken a $60,000 pay cut to prostitute himself to a man he believed in only to become a joke to his own colleagues. Now he can go back to journalism and try to recapture whatever it was he believed in or cash in by following other press secretaries into a consulting and communications gig.
Carney’s dilemma is bigger than one man. It’s also the question facing his media colleagues who traded whatever they believed in to believe in Obama. It’s the question faced by liberals who put Obama over everything and now realize that if he goes down, their tattered ideology may go down with him.
They believed that they were lying for a true cause. Now can they ever find the truth?
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