Vahe Gregorian

The best day in a job of a lifetime for White House press secretary and Royals fan Josh Earnest

Royals manager Ned Yost (middle) presented the president’s press secretary Josh Earnest (right), who is a lifelong Royals fan, with a jersey. Royals catcher Salvador Perez (left) and first baseman Eric Hosmer joined and joked with Earnest at his morning press briefing during the Royals’ Thursday visit to the White House.
Royals manager Ned Yost (middle) presented the president’s press secretary Josh Earnest (right), who is a lifelong Royals fan, with a jersey. Royals catcher Salvador Perez (left) and first baseman Eric Hosmer joined and joked with Earnest at his morning press briefing during the Royals’ Thursday visit to the White House. jsleezer@kcstar.com

On what a colleague jokingly called "inauguration day" for White House press secretary Josh Earnest, the Barstow School graduate pulled on a pair of Royals socks and tweeted a picture of them.

"Never been a better day to rock my #Royals socks," he wrote.

Perhaps bordering on giddy over the event of the day ahead, honoring the 2015 World Series champions, the 30th White House press secretary went to work in the West Wing office bearing his unique imprint.

Earnest’s hallowed space features such memorabilia as a framed base signed by the 2014 World Series team, a Royals pennant, a Ned Yost-autographed picture of Earnest and his wife, Natalie, speaking with the manager.

Also within is the lucky blue Royals mug from which he typically sips in the White House briefing room, where for 60 to 90 minutes nearly every day Earnest has the daunting responsibility to speak for the president and advocate for his "values and priorities."

It’s both a humbling duty and a fascinating vantage on history for Earnest, 41, who performs this complex task with eloquence and engagement and disarming grace that has lived up to President Barack Obama’s words when he introduced him for the job … (starting with a little jab at his Royals’ affections.)

"Josh is a coach’s son from Kansas City. He still roots for the Royals, I guess," Obama said to laughter that day, May 30, 2014.

More seriously, he added, "As you know, his name describes his demeanor: Josh is an earnest guy, and you can’t find just a nicer individual, even outside of Washington."

Somehow, even in the increasingly cynical world of politics, he’s still seen that way in Washington.

A 2015 Politico Magazine survey of 69 White House beat reporters, including some going back between 41 and 50 years, rated Earnest the best at his job. There are those who would go as far as to say he’s beloved.


Interview with White House press secretary and Royals fan Josh Earnest in West Wing office

In a combined physiological-psychological ritual he summons to prepare to meet the press after digesting an unfathomable amount of reading and consultation, Earnest typically ambles the short walk from his office down the stairs and around a few corners to the briefing room.

The idea is to slow himself down, he said in his office Thursday, since "the physical act of slowing down has the effect of slowing my brain down, too."

But this was just a different sort of day for Earnest, who laughed and said he "committed a cardinal sin" on his way to the room.

He had walked more briskly than usual because he wanted the briefing to go fast to be sure he wasn’t late for the Royals ceremony.

"So the transmission of the internal workings of my brain was a little off to begin with," he said.

Maybe it didn’t help that upon his entry the exchange of the day was, "Let’s see the socks."

So Earnest complied. Then he joked he was sure the White House press corps would have "intense interest" in covering the Royals visit before he launched into a point about Wall Street reform when …

Well, let’s turn it over to the official White House transcript and what will become the annals of history.

"MR. YOST:  Excuse me.

MR. EARNEST:  Uh-oh, you guys. Look out. (Kansas City Royals manager and ballplayers come out.)

MR. YOST:  We had real fears that Josh would get in trouble by hijacking the President’s jersey, so we made a special one for him.  (Laughter.)

Q: (media) Oooh --

MR. EARNEST:  Oh, wow! Look at that! Thank you, Ned. I really appreciate it. Look at this! Hey, Salvy (Perez) how are you? Very nice to see you. Thank you.

MR. (ERIC) HOSMER: Here’s a mug for you.

MR. EARNEST: That is a big mug. (Laughter.) I don't think it will fit underneath the desk. Thank you, guys. Welcome to the White House.

MR. YOST: Thank you. We're excited to be here.

MR. EARNEST: So glad that you're here. I know the President is looking forward to it, too.

MR. YOST: So are we.

MR. EARNEST: And this is a celebration worthy of a World Championship.

MR. YOST: Sorry we interrupted. We know you have to work.

MR. EARNEST: That's all right. You're welcome here any time. Nice to see you guys. Hopefully we'll see you later. Thank you, Salvy. Nice to see you.

MR. PEREZ: Nice to see you, Josh. Back to work."

And so he was.

Earnest would later say the thrill threw him off a little bit, but you’d never know it from his typically deft responses — at times with his trademark pause to think that he says "doesn’t make for awesome TV" but that he finds particularly useful on sensitive matters.

Next thing you know, Earnest was speaking to everything from the crisis in Turkey to the Republican Convention to the Supreme Court to Zika … with a few asides for lighter questions such as whether the White House might have any Pokemon secretly located within.

In keeping with one of his fundamental philosophies of treating questions and questioners with respect, Earnest even indulged the Pokemon question.

"Let's just say I take no special delight in being the first White House spokesperson to say ‘Pokémon’ at a White House briefing," he said to laughter. "But look, I think there have been, in some instances, legitimate security questions that have been raised about the game. 

"It's not one that I'm playing right now.  So those concerns aside … we encourage people to not suspend common sense, even if they … turn to Pokémon for a little summer fun."


Baseball has been the prime summer fun for Earnest for as long as he can remember, including an enduring memory of watching the parade for the 1985 world champions from his grandmother’s office downtown.

Growing up in the Red Bridge neighborhood in south Kansas City with two younger brothers, the son of a psychologist (mother Jeanne) and coach/athletic director (father Don is the AD at the Pembroke Hill School) was another one of those kids in Little League who "wanted to be No. 5" — George Brett.

Earnest attended the Barstow School, where he recently delivered a graduation speech he composed on Air Force One on the way to Saudi Arabia. He lettered in basketball ("I was able to shoot outside OK") and baseball.

As a pitcher, he playfully told Royals flamethrower Yordano Ventura, his fastball was "several ticks below (Ventura’s) off-speed stuff" — thus leaving Earnest acknowledging "I’m not sure I would be much help in the fifth-starter position."

All of which is prologue to a reassuring point about a loyalty to the Royals he notes he came by honestly.

This isn’t some kind of front-running stunt. It’s a sincere, ongoing love.

Through even their considerable dark times, the Royals still provided him a steady outlet and escape and dreams of better days — obvious from his range of reference.

That’s why even before they returned to the playoffs in 2014 for the first time since 1985, he so identified with them that the notice of his appointment to the press secretary job included mention of him as a "lifelong Kansas City Royals fan."

And it’s why, seeking hope in future prospects, he happily remembers some years ago going to watch the Royals’ Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks play in Potomac.

And it’s ultimately why of all the great days Earnest says he’s enjoyed in the White House, where he previously was chief deputy press secretary, this Thursday will always hold a special place in his heart.

So before the ceremony for the Royals, you could see a beaming Earnest making the rounds in a room stocked with family and friends he helped get invites.

"I think it was a prerogative I’ve earned," he said, laughing.


Earnest studied political science at Rice, but less because he planned a career in politics than because he figured, correctly, that the classes would be interesting.

Sure, he grew up with a sense of civic responsibility and recalls going with his parents to vote.

But his path into politics was a quirk of fate.

Amid a senior year in which he had "no idea" what he was going to do, one of his professors had a friend running for mayor and got Earnest involved as a volunteer.

Then he got hired "and got the bug."

It wasn’t baseball, but …

"I will say that the sense of competition that appealed to me about sports (applies) in politics," he said. "It’s a contest, of ideas (in this case), with a set process for measuring the outcome and … a sense of fair competition."

After jobs that included working on former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first campaign and with the Democratic National Committee, he joined Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007 as his Iowa communications director.

He served as Obama’s deputy communications director in the 2008 general election and in various other capacities before what he considers the job of a lifetime — a job that will end in six months.

"My next job is not going to top this, which is why after I get done here it will be time to do something different," he said, adding that he knows only that he will seek the same culture of collegiality and intellectual challenge he’s experienced in the White House.

So for the final six months of the job, Earnest will appreciate it all the more, particularly the awesome responsibility of using his own discretion to represent the president.

Earnest always feels like he’s on a treadmill, partly because news is consumed and "metabolizes" at an increasingly accelerating pace.

"Some days it’s not moving that fast, but most days it’s moving at a pretty fast rate — and it’s on an incline," he said, smiling. "And even on the days you’ve made it up through the incline, it’s still moving."

Pausing to consider it all, he said, "That’s a lot of pressure. But it’s a lot of fun, too."

Maybe never more than it was on Thursday, when the only thing missing for Earnest was the "Salvy Splash" that he seemed to encourage in the White House video announcing the date of the visit.

Even so, Earnest said, "I spent a lot of today trying to soak it in."

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

 

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