WASHINGTON — The podium in the White House Press Briefing Room is the public face of the presidency, and when Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20 it will look quite different. A few weeks after his election in November, Biden named the first all-female White House communications staff, which includes multiple women of color. It was a milestone for a nascent administration that has prided itself on diversity.
However, Biden’s briefings will not be the first time a Black woman served as the main voice of the presidency; that moment came in 1991, when Judy Smith stepped behind the podium as a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush.
“I didn’t think about it at the time. … What I thought about at the time was that going to work in the White House was … just such an incredible opportunity. … It was a dream come true,” Smith said in an interview with Yahoo News last month. “I didn’t understand the significance of what that was, getting up briefing at that moment, seeing a Black woman behind the podium, speaking on behalf of the president to the American public.”
After her time in the White House, Smith became one of the country’s foremost crisis communications specialists, and her work inspired the hit television show “Scandal.” Despite this renown, Smith’s role as the first Black woman to lead a White House briefing has rarely been acknowledged and there are few available photos or videos of her time behind the podium.
Martha Joynt Kumar, who is director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project and author of multiple books on the president’s press shop has studied its communications operation since 1975. She believes Smith’s history-making turn didn’t attract more notice because White House briefings were not televised until the Clinton presidency. They went on to become highly rated spectacles, particularly in the administration of President Trump.
“I think it’s because the press secretary and the deputies were not well known until they went on camera in January 1995 … when the briefing was televised,” Kumar said. “Bush was not somebody who spent a lot of time on publicity and I don’t think his staff did either. His Cabinet secretaries were very visible, but less so, was his White House staff.”