White House Press Secretary Jay Carney ’87 learned the hard way that he is no natural in front of the camera.
Carney took two days off from his job covering the White House for Time magazine in the 1990s to audition for a cable company in Washington D.C. The network, which sought an anchor for a new show, had reached out to Carney to take the job permanently — but after just two days of filming, he returned to Time. His television career was a disaster, he told colleagues, and the show probably would not go on without him.
Today, Carney is the second press secretary in President Barack Obama’s administration, and he is in front of a television camera more often than most national news anchors.
Since his early days as a Russian and East European studies major at Yale, Carney’s reputation as a kind person and dedicated journalist has followed him. While his transition from journalism to political communications was not without its share of bumps, Carney’s friends and colleagues said they are not surprised the Yalie has risen to his current job. Carney declined to be interviewed for this article.
After graduating from the Lawrenceville School, a private boarding school in New Jersey, Carney came to Yale and quickly joined the staff of the New Journal, and began his work in magazine journalism.
The vision for the New Journal at the time was ambitious, said Carney’s then-editor Richard Bradley ’86. Unlike many of the other writers at the publication, Carney was not particularly idiosyncratic or eccentric, Bradley said.
“He’s a very serious guy about his work,” Bradley said. “He’s a Derek Jeter type — someone with a lot of skills that makes it look easy.”
A leader at the journal in his writing, and later in his editing, Bradley said, Carney climbed the ranks and became the publication’s editor in 1986 as a junior.
Carney was not unusually charismatic — instead, he was a “really regular, really nice, really smart guy,” said friend and fellow Timothy Dwight College alum Christopher Cole ’87. According to Bradley, Carney had the journalistic skills and personality to organize people and the creative ideas needed to sustain the journal as its editor.
Friends in Timothy Dwight said Carney tended to blend in among the group, though Cole said he had a “very skeptical, inquisitive, questioning mind.”
“We were a quirky group,” Cole said of his and Carney’s TD friends. “He is a funny guy with a good sense of humor, but singling out Jay, I can’t honestly think of any story that sticks out.”
Carney followed the path he established during his work at the New Journal and continued to pursue journalism after graduating from Yale. The native North Virginian moved to Florida to work at the Miami Herald, then joined the staff of Time magazine as its Miami correspondent. Carney called on his formal academic training and fluency in Russian when he traveled to Moscow to cover the fall of the Soviet Union from 1991 to 1993.
In 1993, Carney moved to Time’s bustling Washington D.C. bureau. Jef McAllister, a Time staffer who covered the White House with Carney, said his colleague was up to the challenge.
“Jay was always solid, creative, and well-sourced. He hustled,” McAllister said. “And he always wrote like a dream — fast, perceptive, a lovely way with words.”
Almost 10 years after Carney first arrived at Yale as a freshman, little had changed in how his co-workers perceived him. Co-workers said he was “a fundamentally nice guy,” and continued to lead by the example of his work.
But he made an even stronger impression on one Time affiliate: McAllister said his 10-year-old daughter “fell madly in love” with Carney when she met him during “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.”
When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, Carney was employed as the Washington bureau chief at Time. Vice President Joe Biden offered Carney a job as his new communications director, and he accepted.
Though his fellow White House staffers described him as kind person, Carney’s transition to the new job tested the limits of his patience.
When reporters wrote negative stories about Biden’s speech delivery or his disagreements with President Obama, Carney often responded with anger, McAllister said, and sometimes called journalists to berate them for their stories. However, Carney eventually adjusted to the job, McAllister said.
“The proof that he had settled in and figured out how to do a great job can be partly measured by the fact that those Biden jokes seem to have pretty much died away,” said McAllister.
Even in this more public setting, Carney continued to call upon his skills as a journalist to manage and maintain his professional life, said Nathaniel Rakich and Adam Blanck, who both served as White House interns under Carney. Though he was a great mentor, they said, Carney also liked to work independently.
“He liked to get his own work done,” said Blanck. “He did his own thing.”
When Robert Gibbs stepped down as Obama’s press secretary in December, rumors circulated that the White House wanted a journalist to take the job. The Washington Post reported Jan. 8 that Carney was a front-runner, and that reporters were on the administration’s radar.
When Carney was named to the job Jan. 27, he found himself in the highest-profile communications position in America — just two years after leaving his career as a journalist.
Bradley said that based on Carney’s skill as a Yale undergraduate, he was not surprised to see his old reporter in the prominent post.
“There are some journalists who have a particular gift for chronicling the powerful. That requires confidence, and a sense of ‘I could do that too. I’m comfortable writing about these people because I’m not intimidated by what they do,’” Bradley said.
“That’s the comfort level that lets you say, ‘I can be on the receiving end of questions as opposed to being the ones asking them.’ Jay has this gift.”
Carney is married to Claire Shipman, a senior correspondent for ABC News. They have two children.