Before leaving on May 13, former press secretary Jen Psaki reinterpreted a tradition that had lasted for nearly fifty years for a once-male profession. Symbolically bridging gender gaps
For nearly fifty years, White House spokespersons passed a “bulletproof vest”a ritual born for fun when a group of journalists gave Ron Nessen, press secretary by Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977, a brocade vest with bulletproof padding that – they joked – would return to him useful for sheltering from “blows” received by contract during his daily briefings. The spokesperson is in fact the link between the administration and the press and manages relations with the White House Press Corps, the pool of correspondents constantly following the president, of whom he is the face but – above all – the shield, with the task of fending off crises and emergencies. “When I left,” Nessen himself said years later, “I left the vest to my successor Jody Powell, in the cabinet of the spokesman’s office, with a note: you’ll need it in some of your briefings.”
Since, the 22 spokespersons who followed one another in the west wing of the White House they passed that “bulletproof vest” with the pocket full of notes inspired by the one left by Nessen, ironic and encouraging notes tied with a red bow: it was a symbol of the difficulties and importance of the work they would be called upon to fill, but above all a respected Washington tradition. Every now and then, in the passage from one administration to another, the jacket was lost and the outgoing spokesperson bought a new one to leave to the successor: Nessen’s worked and padded waistcoat had thus become a blue blazer for men, with no more tickets missing during the Obama presidency, but the ritual remained, together with the solidarity between the members of an exclusive – and wearing – club like that of the spokesperson.
The tradition stopped in 2021, when Jen Psaki – following a turbulent transition from the Trump administration to the Biden one – found no jacket in the closet, nor a note from Kayleigh McEnany. So, when on May 13 you gave way to Karine Jean-Pierre after 16 months on the communications front, the outgoing spokesperson ran to Macy’s to look for a replacement. Except she didn’t buy a classic blue blazer for men, but a women’s glow-in-the-dark yellow jacket in size 16 – the equivalent of an L – with black pocket edges, as well as elbow patches. “It’s a women’s jacket,” Psaki clarified, “but it’s big enough for men of all sizes.”
After all, the profession has evolved and the public face of the administration it has followed – sometimes anticipating, others chasing – the evolution of the company: Karine Jean-Pierre, 44, in office since May 13, is the fifth woman in a row to hold the position – previously there were only two: Dee Dee Myers with Bill Clinton, first in 1993 , and Dana Perino with George W. Bush – but also the first African-American person and the first openly gay.
Own Myers had inspired another spokespersonCJ Cregg, the character played by Allison Janney who held the role in the tv series West Wing between 1999 and 2006, becoming the female archetype of a profession that at the time was reserved only for men. “Jen has offered a great service to the spokesperson’s office,” she wrote in an email to New York Times Perino, in office from 2007 to 2009, before Obama named three men. “He has restored a beautiful tradition.” And, by choosing a women’s yellow jacket, she has – symbolically – bridged the gender gap.