KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One of the most recognizable faces in national politics and government is returning to Kansas City next week to talk to local high school graduates and their families. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest grew up here and has been asked to give the commencement address at The Barstow School, his alma mater.
Earlier this month FOX 4's Phil Witt got a rare opportunity for a local TV journalist for a one-on-one interview with the President of the United States at The White House. He also got to spend time with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. In an exclusive interview on the west lawn of The White House the Kansas City native and Witt talked about the demands and rewards of being the man who speaks for President Obama.
For Josh Earnest it’s a regular ritual, the daily White House briefing in which Earnest doles out announcements and background information from the Obama Administration to the members of the national press corps. And then Earnest starts taking questions from the reporters, what looks to be to an outside observer an exhausting exercise that often lasts 90 minutes or more – day after day.
"It’s a genuine honor to have the opportunity to represent the President’s views on some of these issues and also to use my own discretion in terms of influencing the political debate," said Earnest. "And this is the opportunity of a lifetime."
The questions get into minute detail of what Earnest or his boss has said and into topics that seem to come out of nowhere.
"One of the things I benefit from is having been here at The White House for more than seven years now," said Earnest. "And so, there is a lot of institutional knowledge that you build up over seven years but I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to dig into this material."
Earnest answers them all with an uncanny grasp of knowledge and often with a disarming sense of humor.
"Are there any member of the press corps that you just can’t stand?" asked Witt.
"I would never admit publicly that there is," laughed Earnest.
Earnest says his biggest challenge is dealing with the constant changing winds of news coverage.
"There’s a treadmill aspect to this job which is that the treadmill is always moving," said Earnest. "Some days it’s moving fast.
Some days it’s moving at a steep incline. Other days it’s a little slower. But it’s always moving." And the biggest reward he says is representing a leader he admires and respects and having the opportunity to help that leader shape public opinion on the biggest issues of our times.
"So it’s obviously the President who is setting the tone," said Earnest. "The President is setting the priorities. But I also have an opportunity to engage in that debate in a way that other people don’t. And I certainly treasure that opportunity. I recognize that’s a really special thing."
Meantime, Monday is a milestone day for high school seniors at The Barstow School in south Kansas City. It’s their graduation day and they have Earnest, a famous alumnus, coming in to deliver their commencement address.
"I’m quickly learning that when you are in a position of talking about your own experiences and your own perspective, I feel even a little more like I’m on the hot seat," said Earnest. The hot seat. Earnest certainly has been in that position for the past two years now in Washington, D.C. as White House Press Secretary. He is accustomed to being peppered with tough questions every day for 90 minutes or more from the national press corps. But Earnest says the prospect of being his own spokesperson at the school from which he graduated high school more than two decades ago has him apprehensive.
"I have told officials at Barstow that I’m nervous about giving the speech," said Earnest. "They claim to not believe me."
Earnest says it’s a big thrill for him to return to Barstow to deliver the commencement address. He says he vividly remembers his own graduation in 1993.
"Feeling a real sense of accomplishment and pride at what I’d done through my career there," said Earnest. "I’ve been so blessed and so fortunate that I’ve gotten to experience so many things since that night."
Earnest was a very involved scholar, athlete and leader at Barstow in the early 90’s. He became politically aware there and gained an appreciation for the obligation people have to contribute to positive change in the nation and the world. That, he says, is what he plans to stress in his speech that wasn’t fully formed yet when we chatted 17 days ago.
"These are young men and women who have been given enormous gifts in terms of being exposed to a tremendous education and passionate teachers," said Earnest. "And that should fill them with a lot of optimism about what they can accomplish in their life but they also need to recognize that they have a responsibility to share those gifts with other people."
Earnest says there are issues that he is passionate about and cares deeply about and as someone who is proud of his country and his president, having this brief period in his life and career in which he can influence the public debate has been a really special opportunity that he treasures. Earnest has been White House Press Secretary for two years now and he expects to finish out President Obama’s second and last term in that capacity. Then he goes job hunting knowing that the next President will bring his or her own team in.