This week the blue door will slide back, a Black woman will walk to the lectern and a piece of White House history will be made.
Karine Jean-Pierre, facing rows of reporters and cameras, will be making her briefing room debut as the first Black woman and first openly gay person in the role of press secretary. Not that there will be much time to stand on ceremony.
“Karine is the right person to carry the weight of being a history maker but that aspect of it will last all of five warm minutes at the podium,” predicted Patrick Gaspard, a longtime colleague who is now chief executive of the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington.
“About five minutes in, being the first ever is going to mean hardly anything to folks who are hearing from her and certainly it’s not a crutch that Karine is going to rely upon. She knows that she’s got to be better prepared than anyone.”
It does indeed promise to be baptism of fire. Jean-Pierre takes over as top messenger for a Joe Biden administration grappling with inflation, Ukraine and a national shortage of baby formula as the Democratic party is bracing for November election losses that could end its control of Congress.
But the symbolism of the appointment is inescapable after the Donald Trump era in which all four press secretaries were white. Jean-Pierre once declared: “I am everything that Donald Trump hates. I’m a Black woman, I’m gay, I am a mom. Both my parents were born in Haiti.”
The 47-year-old was born in Martinique to Haitian parents and raised in the Queens Village neighborhood of New York. Her early career included a stint working for James Sanders, then a city council member in New York, now a state senator, and at the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, pushing big companies such as Walmart to change their business practices.
She has not always picked winners. Jean-Pierre was press secretary to Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, later jailed for sending sexually explicit text messages to a minor, and served on the presidential election campaign of John Edwards, who also fell from grace in a sex scandal.
But her big break came when Gaspard hired her to work on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and then in the Obama White House as a regional director in the office of political affairs. Gaspard, the son of Haitian immigrants, said: “She and I have been in the trenches together. We’re Haitian-American family.
“She and I can sometimes finish one another’s thoughts just on the basis of the culture that we’re steeped in. There is a deep sense of public service and the integrity of governance that’s really important to most immigrant communities and certainly for Haitian-Americans who appreciate that there are opportunities in democratic service available to them here that are tragically denied at home.”
Jean-Pierre was deputy campaign manager on Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign, then chief public affairs officer for the progressive grassroots group MoveOn.
At one of its events in 2019, an animal rights protester leaped on stage and tried to seize then Senator Kamala Harris’s microphone. Jean-Pierre kept her cool, springing from her chair to shoo him away. Old colleagues say she has the ideal temperament for the pressure cooker of the briefing room with its sometimes hostile questioning.
Ben Wikler, a former senior adviser at MoveOn, now chair of the Wisconsin Democratic party, said: “One of Karine’s superpowers is to keep her nerve in the face of chaos and high stakes.”
“She has a deep wealth of experience in working on the political side and communications roles and doing a lot of live television work has really given her a sense of poise and confidence about handling delicate and breaking news situations.”
He added: “Everyone’s blood temperature went down when she had the microphone because they knew that she is so effective at bringing things back to the message that needed to be conveyed.”
Jean-Pierre appeared as a political analyst on the NBC and MSNBC networks but, with Biden’s election, returned to the White House. As principal deputy press secretary she has sometimes briefed in Psaki’s absence, for example when the latter was ill with coronavirus.
Psaki, a self-declared policy wonk, has told the New York Times that, before the door to the briefing room slides open, both women often do a dance to shake off their nerves. With Psaki now reportedly heading to MSNBC, Biden offered the top job to Jean-Pierre in the Oval Office.
A day after her appointment, she received a standing ovation at a recent media awards ceremony in New York organised by the LGBTQ+ organisation Glaad. Sarah Kate Ellis, its chief executive and president, said: “Just when we thought her standing ovation would subside, the audience at the Glaad Media Awards issued another wave of applause, because representation matters.
“When Karine takes the podium as press secretary, every little girl, especially Black girls, and every LGBTQ kid, will see they can belong just as they are, that you can be LGBTQ and can contribute and be valued wherever you go. Karine represents the best of America and what we can be.”
Jean-Pierre’s partner is Suzanne Malveaux, a correspondent at CNN. Amid questions over potential conflicts of interest, the network has said Malveaux “will continue in her role as CNN National Correspondent covering national/international news and cultural events but will not cover politics, Capitol Hill, or the White House”.
On Friday, at her 224th and final briefing – more than all Trump’s press secretaries combined, though with rather less drama or viewers – Psaki was asked what lessons she wants to pass on to Jean-Pierre, who smiled from her familiar position at the side of the room.
“The last thing I would say is that it can be repetitive in here from time to time,” she reflected. “That’s not a critique. You are all doing your jobs. But in the age of social media, always provide the context and all of the details, because you never want to be a meme with one line.
“But otherwise be yourself and Karine, as I said last week, is going to bring her own magic, her brilliance, her style to this briefing room.”