Politics & Government

Josh Earnest went from baseball in Kansas City to hardball at White House

By early morning, Josh Earnest’s White House mailbox is filling up fast.

Since waking up around 6 – earlier still on some mornings – he’s read the morning paper, digested several blogs and websites, scanned transcripts of newscasts and political talk shows, and perused a summary of important stories on his BlackBerry that the White House compiled overnight.

While he shaves, the network morning news plays in the background.

The 37-year-old Earnest, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., is the principal deputy White House press secretary. In several hours, his boss, Press Secretary Jay Carney, will hold his daily briefing, and the questions can cover the globe, from Syria to Silicon Valley. It’s Earnest’s role to oversee the prep sessions in Carney’s office.

Carney called him “indispensable. I depend on his judgment all the time.”

Before Earnest even sets foot inside the White House gates – from sidewalks thick with Washingtonians clutching their takeout coffee cups in one hand and cellphones in the other – and enters the West Wing, it’s his job to know what’s been said over the past 12 hours, who said it and what the fallout has been.

“Most evenings, the first 15 minutes of the network news is composed of challenges or problems or discoveries that have been worked on by someone at the White House that day,” Earnest said. “This unique perspective is sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating, but most frequently, it’s humbling.”

It’s pretty heady stuff for a kid from south Kansas City. Politics was not part of his background. He was never schooled in his hometown’s own storied political past. As a high school kid, he didn’t pass out leaflets or put up yard signs.

“The only thing I really remember about politics growing up was my parents taking me with them when they went to vote,” Earnest said

They still live about 20 minutes from the Red Bridge neighborhood, where he and his two younger brothers grew up. His mother, Jeanne, is a psychologist, and his father, Don, is the athletic director at the Pembroke Hill School. Earnest attended the Barstow School, a private secondary school in Kansas City, on a scholarship. He played sports there, including baseball and basketball.

“He’s definitely the quintessential coach’s son,” said Adam Moore, a childhood friend and classmate at Barstow who’s now a lawyer and partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “He has probably the best baseline jumper you’ve ever seen from the left-hand corner baseline. He could hit that three-pointer every time.”

Moore attributes some of his friend’s success to his Midwestern upbringing: “You always know where you stand with him.”

Carney agreed: “His time in politics has made him smart, but not cynical. Maybe that’s because of his K.C. roots.”

Earnest’s mornings are filled with meetings with senior officials. Whether the issue of the day is the economy, national security or the president stopping for lunch at a local burger joint, it all gets massaged by the White House message machine.

“You’re really driven by adrenaline,” said Mercy Schlapp, a White House media affairs official under former President George W. Bush. “I think that’s how you survive, mostly. You have to be ready for pretty much any question.”

Earnest is a political veteran.

Careers like his are nonstop whirlwinds where life is divided into two-year campaign cycles. He’s at the high point of a 15-year arc that took him from Rice University in Texas, where he graduated in 1997 with a degree in political science but no real thoughts of a political career, to – various campaigns later – working down the hall from the president of the United States.

Earnest punched all the tickets: a big city mayoral race in Houston right out of college, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign, a stint as a congressional aide, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, a governor’s race in Florida and finally, the jackpot, a successful presidential campaign.

As Carney’s main deputy, Earnest subs on occasion for his boss at the daily briefing for the White House press corps. More often, he’s one of the aides sitting off to the side, silently following the course of the questioning.

The first press room briefing that Earnest led last August, which – thankfully, he noted – was off-camera, was memorable, but not in a good way. A reporter asked when the White House, which had been criticizing Congress for not moving on some free-trade bills, intended to send them to Capitol Hill for reauthorization.

“Have we not sent them over?” Earnest replied.

“No,” the reporter said. “Gotcha.”

They all chuckled about his gaffe, but White House critics used it to argue that President Barack Obama was stalling on the bills. Earnest said the episode illustrated for him the “very high stakes of the daily briefing.”

Several White House reporters said privately that Earnest is affable and accessible. Lately, they said, he’s occasionally been playing the role of the press office “bad cop” by being tougher with some reporters.

Earnest looks at it this way: “It depends on the day. Part of the job is ensuring that the president’s point of view is being communicated. Sometime it’s important for that message to be delivered forcefully, but professionally.”

Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who helped Earnest early in his career and is a former White House communications director under Obama, said, “Underneath his extremely pleasant demeanor is a fiercely competitive person.”

He has a small office just outside the briefing room. “It’s cozy, but I have a door, a window and television,” plus a big dirt pile outside his window from a construction site. But he sits in a vital spot. He’s a go-to aide for background on issues of the day, and reporters stop by constantly.

“That office he occupies is literally in the eye of the storm,” said Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore.

Early on, Earnest said, former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told him that “the best part of your job is that you will have an office that’s 40 feet from the Oval Office. That is an experience you should not take for granted. The second that gets old is the day you should leave.”

He has no plans to do so anytime soon. He has his own listing on The Washington Post’s “WhoRunsGov” website. The newspaper also noted his engagement to Natalie Wyeth, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, in its gossip column.

He narrates the White House’s online video blog, West Wing Week, which highlights presidential activities. The 100th episode earlier this year started out with the president, who says: “Hi. My name is Barack Obama and I’m Josh Earnest’s understudy. Welcome to the 100th episode of West Wing Week.”

“Not bad, Mr. President,” Earnest says. “I’ll take it from here.”

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