Dante Motley, Contributing Photographer

Former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney ’87 spoke to students about his life and career at a talk in William L. Harkness Hall on Thursday. 

Yale College Democrats hosted Carney, who became the longest-serving press secretary of the 21st century, for the speaker event, which was moderated by David Acquaah-Mensah ’25. At the talk, students asked about Carney’s proudest and most challenging moments in the White House, his work as an Amazon executive and his reporting days during a question-and-answer session that followed.

Dems president Josh Guo ’24 said that his organization invited Carney to speak because of how his unique experiences in political journalism have shaped his perspectives on public policy.

“Mr. Carney is someone who had an inner look on President Obama’s presidency and holds an understanding on how important policy, such as the Affordable Care Act, is created and presented to the public,” Guo told the News. “We hope that many more members of the Yale community are inspired to enter similar careers in political journalism and communications.”

As an undergraduate at Yale, Carney majored in Russian and Eastern European studies. This interest in the Soviet Union spurred his choice of major once he reached college. Serendipity struck for Carney when Gorbachev came to power, as it allowed him to focus his senior thesis not only on historical facts of the post-Stalin Soviet Union but also on what was happening in the region in real-time. Suddenly, Carney explained, his studies at Yale became “the most interesting story in the world.” 

Carney worked as an intern with Time Magazine during the summer before his senior year at Yale. After college, Carney landed a job as a reporter with the Miami Herald and later became Time’s Miami Bureau Chief. While he enjoyed covering stories in Miami, Carney said he wanted to report in Moscow. In 1990, Carney got his wish when Time sent him to Moscow as a correspondent. He stayed there for three years covering the Soviet Union’s fall. 

“So I was very focused as I left [Yale], on getting to Moscow somehow as a reporter, it took me a little while but not that long,” he joked. 

Students who attended the event enjoyed hearing about Carney’s journey from Yale to reporting and, eventually, to the White House under the Obama administration.

“Overall, I liked the event,” Prince Osaji ’26 told the News. “I thought it was cool to hear about [Carney’s] journey from being a reporter to working inside the White House, and I thought the shift in his perception of the government during this transition was interesting. He was also very relatable, so that was enjoyable too.”

Other attendees, including RJ Kelly ’25, said they enjoyed hearing from Carney because his perspective on politics and journalism is grounded in actual experience in a presidential administration.  

With his shift from sitting in front of the podium to speaking behind it, Carney said he initially had “a lot to learn” about how White House communications teams operate. For example, Carney said he quickly realized that lining up more interviews is not always best. Instead, Carney said he grew careful about how to use interviews as a resource, understanding that each interaction with the press can be “high-risk, high-reward” for an elected official. 

In other ways, Carney said the transition was easier, as, for example, he became a bit less restricted in his ability to express political opinions. 

“I believe deeply in the President’s agenda and the goodness of Barack Obama and Joe Biden and agree with what they believe in,” Carney said. “And suddenly I could say so and not only say it but fight for it and advocate for it. That was incredibly liberating.”

One of the hardest moments on the job, Carney said, was when he had to field questions from the press about the White House’s botched management of their Obamacare website healthcare.gov, which he described as a “slow-moving trainwreck.” On the last day of enrollment, people attempting to use the website were faced with delays, outages and glitches. 

Looking at the current Biden White House, Carney celebrated the work of former Press Secretary Jen Psaki and current Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. He said he feels Biden’s communications team has done well so far. 

“I think Karine does a great job of keeping her poise, getting the information out and handling the tough questions without making herself the story,” he reflected. “You don’t want to be caricatured on Saturday Night Live. It means something has gone wrong.”

During the event’s question-and-answer portion, one attendee asked about Carney’s work as Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs. Given the criticism Amazon has received from elected officials over labor, corporate tax and environmental issues, the student asked if Carney’s Amazon role aligned with his values and previous work under Biden and Obama. 

In response, Carney highlighted Amazon’s move to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018 among other more recent bumps in pay for some workers. 

“I’m not saying Amazon is perfect by any means, but I did feel comfortable there [morally], because of what we’re doing on wages,” Carney said. 

Carney served as White House Press Secretary from 2011 to 2014.

Sophie Wang contributed reporting. 

Evan Gorelick is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Woodbridge Hall, with a focus on the University's finances, budget and endowment. He also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production and Design Editor. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.
Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.