It was grimly poignant that the first Black person to hold a briefing as White House press secretary should begin by naming victims of white supremacist violence. Karine Jean-Pierre, standing at the famed blue lectern, took a moment to “remember lives lost and forever changed in Buffalo” with brief and evocative biographies of the 10 victims of Saturday’s mass shooting in New York state.
Evidently, whereas Joe Biden’s first press secretary, Jen Psaki, could ride a wave of optimism at the start of a new administration – and benefit by comparison to Donald Trump’s mendacious messengers – Jean-Pierre is inheriting a world of trouble.
Her 64-minute debut on Monday ranged from Buffalo to baby formula, from Somalia to Ukraine, but first she used her opening remarks to reflect on the new chapter of White House history she was writing.
“I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman,” said Jean-Pierre, born in Martinique to Haitian parents and raised in New York. “The first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders.”
Expressing gratitude to the sacrifices those who came before her, the 47-year-old added: “Representation does matter. You hear us say this often in this administration, and no one understands this better than President Biden.”
Biden, she would go on to remind the briefing more than once, had been motivated to run for president by white nationalists clashing with civil rights activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, nearly five years ago.
And it surely did mean something that, whereas Trump had told the media there were very fine people on both sides, and had been defended by a white press secretary, Sarah Sanders, here was a Black press secretary insisting that hate will have no safe harbour.
Composed and genial, Jean-Pierre was successful in observing the first rule of media briefings – do no harm – but did appear a little too cautious on one point. She was repeatedly asked if she would “call out” individuals such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson or Republican members of Congress who fan the flames of extremism and the “great replacement” theory. Time and again she refused.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” she insisted. “If a person espouses hatred, we need to call that out. I’m not going to get a back and forth on names and who said what.”
One reporter asked if Biden sees a connection to Trump’s “ultra-Maga” movement. Again she dodged.
When the press secretary said, “We’re not going to get into politics here,” another journalist loudly objected that this seemed to be letting the culprits off the hook. Jean-Pierre protested that Biden had always condemned hate: “Once you get into calling out people’s names then you move away from that issue.”
Critics will say the Biden administration is pulling its punches. How can the scourge of white supremacy, which the president describes as a stain on the soul of America, be addressed if he will not identify its tribunes? Is Biden, once again, living in a sepia-tinted age of bipartisanship?
Jean-Pierre’s reticence was thrown into sharp relief down Pennsylvania Avenue where Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, did name names. “In a craven quest for viewers and ratings, organisations such as Fox News have spent years perfecting the craft of stoking cultural grievance and political resentment that eerily mirrors the messages found in replacement theory.
“According to one measure by the New York Times, Fox’s top political pundit – most widely watched – Tucker Carlson, has spewed rhetoric that echoes replacement theory at least 400 times on his show since 2016.”
The contrast was illustrative: the job of White House press secretary is often about ducking controversies and not making headlines. Psaki was masterful at promising to “circle back” and “not get ahead of the president”. Now, like the TV time traveller Doctor Who, the press secretary has regenerated in different and diverse form but with essentially the same character.
Devoted Psaki fans might gripe that Jean-Pierre, who entered 38 minutes late with a smile and a briefing book under her arm, has not yet got the knack of riffing spontaneously. For example, Psaki’s tussles with Peter Doocy of Fox News would sometimes go viral when she delivered an off-the cuff “#Psakibomb”.
When Doocy challenged Jean-Pierre on Monday, she did not seem quite so nimble. He noted that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had criticised Biden for a tweet the president wrote suggesting that taxing wealthier corporations could help bring down inflation.
Jean-Pierre read from her notes: “Look, it’s not a huge mystery why one of the wealthiest individuals on Earth, right, opposes an economic agenda that is for the middle class, that cuts some of the biggest costs families face, fights inflation for the long haul, right …” It went on in wonky fashion.
But Monday will be remembered as the day that Jean-Pierre shattered multiple glass ceilings. Asked to reflect on her history making role, she said she had not read many of the things written about her. “But there was something that moved me,” she said, referring to a media story about her elementary school in Hempstead, New York.
“They talked to the students about me and this moment and this administration … and these kids wrote me a letter and, in the letter, they talked about how they can dream bigger because of me standing behind this podium. And that matters.”