Obama Alum Jay Carney on New CNN Gig: I'm Still "Loyal to the President"
The longtime press secretary-turned-commentator opens up about staying partisan while also asserting "I'm also my own person, and I’m going to express my views"
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
After more than three years as President Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, 49, joined CNN on Sept. 10. Personally recruited by CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, whom Carney met during the 1990s when wife Claire Shipman was White House correspondent for NBC News, Carney says he's not thinking about a long-term TV career. Rather, the former Time magazine D.C. bureau chief is keeping his options open while sparring with the likes of John McCain.
So you're not positioning yourself as nonpartisan?
I am who I am. I deeply believed in what I did and what he has done as president. And I don't walk away from that at all. There is no nirvana, but CNN's mission is news-focused. They are not actively pursuing a niche in one political camp or the other. I believe in the president, believe in the rightness of his policies. I'm also my own person, and I'm going to express my views. But it would be disingenuous to suddenly pretend that I wasn't loyal to [the president].
Why did you choose CNN?
They're down the middle. They're not partisan. And I think that's good. You don't have that dynamic where people are choosing what they want to hear based on their own personal politics.
Do you want to get back into politics?
I had the privilege of the best run ever. It's hard to predict the future, but it's not something I'm thinking about now.
And no aspirations to be George Stephanopoulos or James Carville?
(Laughs.) Those two guys are so unique, you can't pattern yourself after them. I'm busy exploring a bunch of things. Being a commentator on TV is part of it. I'm not thinking long-term about a TV career.
Your first CNN appearance featured a rather testy exchange about the administration's strategy in a rapidly deteriorating Iraq with Sen. John McCain.
I was totally fine on the exchange. I disagree with him. He was a fierce advocate for the invasion, a fierce advocate for expanding our forces there, a fierce advocate for keeping them there. In 2008, he said he could easily envision American troops on the ground in Iraq for 100 years. The president ran as someone who disagrees with that — and beat John McCain doing it, pretty soundly. And then he won re-election maintaining that position. The fact is the United States government was actively trying to negotiate with the Iraqi government on a status of forces agreement that would have allowed for residual forces to remain in Iraq. [The Iraqi government] refused to meet the terms of that agreement. And it would have been the height of irresponsibility to leave U.S. men and women in uniform on the ground there without the kind of protections you need from a status of forces agreement. That's just a fact. But that's Senator McCain and that’s fine.
Any thoughts on CNN’s strengths and weaknesses?
They’re at their best when they do what they’re most known for — solid news reporting and solid news commentary. I'm looking forward to being part of that.
What is being unfairly covered about the administration?
There are a lot of great reporters out there who are doing a good job. They’re tough and smart and they follow the story. But you get these crescendos; things are bad, [the president's] numbers are bad. There's a tendency to chase that ball down the field together. And this is true regardless of which party is in the White House. I used to do it as a reporter, so I’m not assigning blame or saying it’s partisan. I think you go through these cycles, and the White House is in one of those cycles. It's a challenging time.
The Washington press corps is often accused of grandstanding during the televised briefings …
It's mostly a first-row phenomenon with the television correspondents. If you look at the on-the-record briefings that are not televised, the tenor and tone is very different. The questions are often more substantive and serious. I'm not casting aspersions. I'm noting a pretty objective fact.
What was the worst question you were asked as press secretary?
There was one guy, Les Kinsolving [of WorldNetDaily], who asked about bestiality. There was a lot of ridiculousness over the president's birth certificate that was fueled by [Donald] Trump. A lot of reporters jumped on that knowing it was ridiculous.
That must have been frustrating.
It’s part of the deal. I loved it. I didn’t have a single bad day.
In terms of my job. There were terrible days — [the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.] was the worst day imaginable. It was unimaginably sad. I just mean in terms of being [at the White House] and having the privilege of being there. The rareness of it, the specialness of it. Every day was great.