Q&a -- Martha Joynt Kumar

From The Beast's Belly

Towson professor, author of a newly published book, has spent three decades becoming the keeper of the White House press operation's institutional memory

December 02, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

You could describe Martha Joynt Kumar as a dance critic.

After all, she has spent most of the last three decades observing, chronicling and commenting on one of the most delicate pas de deux on the planet - that between the president and the White House press corps.

The most recent result of these efforts is the book Managing the President's Message: The White House Communications Operation, just published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It looks at the relationship between the last four presidents and the press at a time when the tempo of the dance was picking up, first with cable news, now the Internet.

Some of the book is historical research, but much of it comes from the days and days that Kumar spends in the belly of the beast, hanging out in the press room in the West Wing of the White House.

`The National Journal is nice enough to let me use a desk when they are not there," she says.

Kumar teaches in the political science department of Towson University. She used to commute from Delaware, where her husband works. She bought a home in Washington in 1997 to be closer to her White House work.

A native of Alexandria, Va., Kumar specialized in Congress while getting her graduate degrees from Columbia University.

She first started going to the White House in 1975 when Michael Grossman, then chairman of the political science department at Towson, was researching the press operation. They co-wrote Portraying the President: The White House and the Media, which was published in 1981.

Grossman left for California, where he taught in the university system. Kumar stayed.

"I kept coming back to the White House from time to time to interview people," she says of the 1980s. "I began to spend a lot of time in the White House in the '90s and began coming on a regular basis in 1995, after Mike McCurry became press secretary."

Now she is something of a fixture, trusted by both sides in this dance. During her time there, she has interviewed every press secretary and all sorts of other administration officials, as well as reporters and editors.

The result is that Kumar has become the press operation's institutional memory, the keeper of facts and statistics that go beyond any one administration, or the tenure of most White House reporters.

"I actually find both sides use my material," she says. "I always shared it with the reporters, I thought, why not share it with the White House? I thought, why blindside them? So I give it to both sides."

That trust made Kumar's research work easier.

"People were willing to talk to me about how they did their work," she says. "They saw me as a scholar looking objectively at why communication is important for the press and the White House." What is the thesis of your new book?

It deals with the way in which the modern White House seeks to manage the messages that they want to send to their various constituencies. From the White House point of view, it is not as easy as an outsider might think to get those messages out.

If they want to get a speech by the president covered, if they want to get it to the right audience, it is difficult, from their point of view, in this environment where there is a lot of noise they have to break through. There is opposition on the Hill trying to give their version. There are interest groups trying to do the same. Everyone is trying to use every opportunity to define who the president is, to a public that is often not that interested in listening. So they have to work in a lot of different way to get the public's attention.

That is true in this administration and it was true in the Clinton administration. Both believed that getting through to the public was not always so easy. Of course, even if you do get through to the public, it is no guarantee that a president is going to persuade them to his viewpoint. Look at Bush's 2005 effort to reform Social Security. Has this media approach changed in recent years?

One time, if a president wanted TV time, he could get it by calling a press conference in the nighttime on Eastern time and have the whole nation watch. There were three television networks that everyone watched, and they all broadcast the press conferences. That was true for Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon, really all the way up through Reagan.

But once cable comes into the picture, people have many more choices, and they exercise them. It gets much more difficult to get your message out. And now the Internet has just sped everything up. I was adding things to the book up until the last minute about how the Bush team tries to use the internet. Has the White House always been fighting this battle?

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