In the 1950s, there were only a handful of press secretaries on Capitol Hill. Today there are about 750. How do they keep busy? They write press releases—hundreds each week, thousands each year.

Since there is not enough real news to sustain this enormous outpouring, imaginations strain to meet the challenge of “what can we put in today’s release?” In April, for example, Rep. Dan Glickman’s press secretary put out a release that revealed for the first time to a breathless public the name of one of the congressman’s summer interns. “I’m looking forward to having Pat in the office,” was just one of its meatier quotes. “I’m sure she will be a tremendous asset and will bring a fresh perspective to the issues we face.”

With material like this to choose from, it’s not surprising that major news organizations immediately throw away 99 percent of the press releases they receive. This makes press secretaries nervous. If they want to avoid the garbage, they must capture the reader’s attention fast.

Thus Rep. Les Aspin’s press secretary proclaims, “Aspin Says Reagan Guilty of Felony Murder of Defense Budget,” and Rep. Thomas Downey’s writes of the valued added tax, ” ‘VAT is Devil’s Work,’ Downey Says .” Some of these attempts at snappy prose misfire, as did this effort on behalf of the senior senator from Wisconsin: “Proxmire Hearing to Focus on Whether Air Force Witness Gagged During Price Markup.” But not all press secretaries work for members who covet national recognition. Indeed, many congressmen don’t care about the national press at all. What they want most is to nurture and feed the newspapers and television stations in their districts. Their goal is not fame but reelection. These press secretaries need only follow a few basic principles of press releasery to practically guarantee eternal job security.

A star is born

The first principle is Make Sure Your Boss Likes the Release. Sometimes you may feel that in the interest of credibility it is better to soft-pedal the adjectives. But if the senator wants to be “bold” and “daring,” bold and daring he must be, even if fewer papers print the release. The papers can’t fire you; the senator can.

The second principle, closely related to the first, is The Importance of Seeming Important. Even the lowliest member wants his constituents to think of him as moving among the mighty, gravely participating in the inner councils of state, sagely advising presidents, speakers, and cabinet members. Thus this recent release proclaimed: “U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. today called on the Supreme Court to ‘uphold the basic tenets of our Constitution … ” The second paragraph explained that Traficant, one of the 12 congressmen who filed the anti-Gramm-Rudman suit, “appeared before the Supreme Court during the oral arguments .” Traficant did “appear” before the Court, much as you might “appear” before Dwight Gooden by attending a Mets game. He was sitting in the audience.

Some press secretaries aim to impress by showing that their boss’s legislative reach is worldwide and immediate. Press releases such as “Bennett to Put U.S. on ‘sound footing’ in Nicaragua” and “AuCoin/Durban Bill Will Reduce Increased World Terrorism” demonstrate a certain modest self-confidence citizens want in their representatives.

Another way for a legislator to convey his importance is simply by announcing that he is a leader. “House Leaders Urge President to ‘Stand Fast’ on Contra Aid .” The “leader” who issued the press release is Rep. Bob McEwen, a thirdterm Ohio Republican congressman with no leadership position, who wrote a letter to the president and got 25 others to sign it. Rep. Ron Packard issued a press release when he was elected vice chairman of the California Republican delegation. Packard was humble. “I’m extremely pleased to be singled out for this honor by my Republican colleagues,” Packard said in the release. Sound impressive? “It’s mostly an honorary post, to be perfectly honest,” says Gary Malone, his press secretary. The function of the vice chairman is to lead the discussion during bi-weekly lunches in the event that the chairman dies or becomes incapacitated.

A slight variation is to pretend that a routine event is actually a major demonstration of the member’s power and influence. A release from New York City Rep. Mario Biaggi, with a bright red “News” written on top of the page and a “For Immediate Release” below, announced: “Biaggi Reappointed to House Aging Committee.” It even included a quote from House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill— “I have every confidence you will continue to serve with distinction” Actually, no one ever has been denied reappointment to this come-one-come-all 65-member committee.

Factors ranging from an innocent pride in the hometown boy’s success in Washington to the need to fill the hole opposite the junior high lacrosse scores often cause local papers to print releases verbatim. At the same time, the growth in the number of press secretaries has been accompanied by an equally impressive growth in the number of out-of-town newspapers that have Washington correspondents. There are now 1,800 reporters registered just in the daily congressional print gallery. They need something to send back home. Press releases, often sufficiently rewritten to maintain the reporters’ self-respect, provide a solution to their problems. Indeed, there is such perfect mutuality between press secretary and the out-of-town correspondent that the classic question of the chicken or the egg arises: no one remembers which came first.

Oysters and pork

The third principle adhered to by the successful press secretary is Reelect the Messenger. One of the great advantages of incumbency is that you get to announce things: big defense contracts, little judgeships, projects you worked to secure, and policy changes you read about in the newspapers. Each announcement, directed primarily at the local press, contributes to the general impression that Your Congressman is Working for You. Press releases bear two basic types of announcement: 1) “Look What Mama/Papa Brought You” and 2) “I Read the Newspaper Before You Did .”

“Look What Papa Brought You” might also be called “Serving the Pork .” It is the art of announcing federal programs that benefit the member’s district in a way that suggests the member deserves great if not exclusive credit. “Callahan and Denton Announce Grant for New Oysters,” gives the impression that Rep. H.L. “Sonny” Callahan and Senator Jeremiah Denton had lobbied feverishly the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to grant their states $872,000 for implanting larval oysters in vacant clam shells. Actually, they just got wind of this pearl before anyone else.

Republicans enjoy a distinct advantage in this game because several agencies have an informal policy of notifying them before they notify Democrats. New York’s Alfonse D’Amato, for instance, announces just about every grant that comes to New York City, because all but two of the delegation’s 14 members are Democrats. He often tells the press about the grant before the agency has notifed the congressman whose district is affected.

The grant distribution process is a lot like a pasta maker. The agency announces it’s giving out a large lump of money and alerts the senator. The legislator takes that huge lump of dough, works it over, and in a press release squirts it out in smaller strands, a few hundred thousand here, a few hundred thousand there. For example, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced $1.3 million in emergency food and shelter grants, Democratic Senator Don Riegle of Michigan issued a press release naming the 35 counties in his state that would receive money. Riegle had nothing to do with who got what, but because the release was under his name and contained a county by county breakdown, the senator was able to splash his name in articles all over the state. “Riegle Announces Emergency Food, Shelter Funds for 59 Michigan Counties; Saginaw County Receives $100,000 Plus,” trumpeted the Chesaning Courier in a typical headline.

The “I Read the Newspaper Before You Did” or the “Sun Set Yesterday, Congressman Announces” press releases are those in which legislators coyly associate themselves with a well-publicized decision or event simply by announcing it again on their own stationery. “House Committees Reject Military Aid to Contras” one headline read. Associated Press? The New York Times? No, Rep. Vic Fazio of California. The first paragraph reads just like a news story might. “The powerful full House Appropriations Committee rejected the administration’s request for $100 million in military aid to the contra guerrilla forces attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.” The only difference is that in the second paragraph, instead of quoting, say, the chairman of the full committee or even the chairman of the appropriate subcommittee, it quotes the committee’s 22nd ranking member, Vic Fazio.

Flash: Terrorism Bad

React Fast with a Quotable Sentence is the press secretary’s fourth principle. Here the aim is to get a free ride on a breaking news story, placing the member squarely on the side of the angels. “——- Condemns Terrorists” has been this year’s favorite. Others risked their careers with courageous declarations such as “Garcia Expresses Concern Over Ethiopian Famine” and Richard Gephardt’s “Endorsement of Philippine Democracy.” The quotable sentence is a necessary part of such a release precisely because everyone else is condemning terrorists and supporting democracy. There must be something to make the congressman stand out. The quotable sentence does not have to be uttered by the member. Often it is manufactured by the press secretary, usually with good reason. Some members are noticeably ineloquent. An example is Bill Green, a congressman from New York City. When he was recently quoted as saying “The fat was removed from most domestic programs long ago, now the flesh is being stripped away to be fed to an insatiable military,” it was a cinch that the words and music were provided by his press secretary. Other press secretaries prefer breaking onto the news pages not by being catchy, but by being bold. “There is no justification for the assassination,” Garcia said in his “Garcia Condemns the Assassination of Mrs. Gandhi” release, apparently undaunted by the pro-terrorism lobby.

Fabricating quotes is so widely accepted that in the course of researching this article I was told by three press secretaries that I could attribute made-up quotes to them.

What I meant was. . . .

Because “react” stories must go out fast, prudent press secretaries usually have words at the ready in their mental computers. If, for example, the reaction is to be positive, the secretary can immediately scan his list of favorite verbs, and choose from “hails,” “praises,” and “welcomes?” In fact, in a recent sample of positive react releases, I found “praises” used 25 percent of the time, followed by “hails” and “welcomes” at 14 percent each.

Sometimes legislators are better off not issuing press releases, particularly when they are guilty of whatever it is they are complaining about. Consider Nebraskan Senator James Exon, who committed the same mistake twice in the same week. On March 11 he issued a statement on stationery with “News Release” written in inch-tall lettering, praising the president for an increase in Farmers Home Administration loan funds. The release said, “Exon was the first member of Congress to publicly direct attention to the shortage of FmHA loan funds.” The next sentence was, ” ‘I don’t care who gets the publicity, the problem has been partially solved,’ Exon said .” Two days later he issued a release calling on the Department of Agriculture to stop wasting money on mailing out unnecessary reports. “I must assume it is supposedly a public relations tool,” Exon said. “It is an expense that taxpayers would not approve.” Think about it, senator.

Senator Jeremiah Denton learned the pitfalls of press releasing the hard way. The conservative Alabaman was the only senator to vote against a resolution congratulating Corazon Aquino for becoming president of the Philippines. Denton’s office issued a statement explaining that the senator voted no to protest the lack of time to consider the resolution. “The entire period for debate was less than 20 minutes.” Later, an angry Denton called the Associated Press to say he hadn’t authorized the press statement and that his staff aide “really screwed me on this thing. When I just read this release was the first time I knew there was any goddamn debate that took place at all,” Denton said. “So there he [the aide] is trying to shield himself from not having let me know that there was a debate going on this subject. But I’m the senator before the world on this vote. . . “

Shortly after the AP story hit the wires, a Democratic Alabama state legislator introduced a resolution condemning Denton for using the Lord’s name in vain. To head off a vote, Denton did what any senator would: he issued another press release. “I profoundly regret my use of such language,” he said in the release. “No one is more aware, nor more critical of my shortcomings than I am. I will increase my efforts to correct those shortcomings and to eliminate this type of incident in the future.” That defused the censure movement in the Alabama legislature, but created one last problem. Most of the Washington press corps had been unaware of the incident until Denton’s office dropped a copy of the second statement in the Senate press gallery.

This incident should teach a lesson to press secretaries all across Capitol Hill. Sometimes it’s better not to issue a press release at all.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.