By longstanding, bipartisan tradition, decades of White House press secretaries have handed down a cheeky symbol of their job fielding rat-a-tat inquiries from feisty reporters: a flak jacket.
The ritual dates to the 1970s, when Gerald Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, received a blue men’s brocade vest from reporters that featured a bulletproof lining. He left it for his successor with a note: “You’ll need this at some of your briefings.”
In true Washington fashion, a gag gift turned into a venerated ritual. But the garment, which in later years was a dark-hued men’s blazer, would occasionally go missing, often between administrations.
So it was that Jen Psaki, on one of her final days as President Biden’s press secretary, found herself trawling a Macy’s looking for a replacement jacket. She found one, with a modern twist.
The new “flak jacket,” which now hangs in a West Wing office, is a women’s Tommy Hilfiger blazer, size 16, in Hi-Liter yellow, with contrasting jetted pockets and elbow patches.
“It’s a women’s jacket,” Ms. Psaki said in an interview. “But it’s large enough for any size man.”
The change seemed fitting.
Karine Jean-Pierre, who started on Monday as Ms. Psaki’s successor, is the fifth woman in a row to serve as White House press secretary, a streak that began with Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2017.
Until Bill Clinton appointed Dee Dee Myers in 1993, the role had exclusively been occupied by men. Dana Perino served under George W. Bush, but Barack Obama named only men to the job.
No jacket was awaiting Ms. Psaki when she started in January 2021; it was apparently lost in the tumult of a presidential transition.
“Jen is doing the office of the press secretary a real service by replacing a wonderful tradition,” Ms. Perino wrote in an email.
The next step is restoring the handwritten notes from press secretaries past, a compendium of advice, humor and sympathy that was apparently lost when the last jacket went missing.
Ari Fleischer, who served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, said in an interview that he kept copies of the notes, which were supposedly wrapped in a red ribbon and stored in the jacket’s pockets. He is in touch with Ms. Psaki about reuniting the notes with their new, brightly colored home.
“It doesn’t matter what it looks like or what it’s made of,” Mr. Fleischer said of the jacket. “It will never work, because there is not enough protection for a press secretary from the White House press corps.”