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Warner Chair Recalls Beginnings In Public Relations, White House

Sept. 30, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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Peter Roussel introduces Dan Rather during the Priority One "Mingling with the Media" event on Sept. 28. Roussel teaches the class that comprises Priority One. —Photos by Brian Blalock

 

There is a lot beyond the neat patriotic bunting flanking a podium stamped with the presidential seal, beyond the swarms of reporters shouting questions and the steady beat of flashbulbs recording history as it happens, beyond the scenes of White House press conferences and 30-second sound bites, according to Peter Roussel.

Backstage at the White House, there is a very specific and, as Roussel remembers, dramatic area of the media field—the job of a White House press spokesman.

Roussel knows, because before he became the Warner Endowed Chair of Journalism in the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University he served as White House deputy press secretary during the Reagan administration and was press spokesman to President George H. W. Bush during his pre-presidency years.

On his first day in the Reagan White House, Roussel recalled being sent “to the frontlines of history,” to serve as press spokesman for the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

And so happened a career of more than 45 years that has included experience in business, government, politics and media, with two "tours of duty" in the White House as an assistant to Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

In recent years, Roussel has been working as an on-camera television commentator for KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate station in Houston, offering analysis on political and governmental affairs.

He is the author of “Ruffled Flourishes,” a novel published in 2009 drawing on his experiences as a press spokesman. He has also written articles for The New York Times and the Washington Post and served as executive vice president and a managing partner of Neumann Roussel Public Relations.

Between his search for a job post college graduation and his eventual transition from public relations to press secretary and his life in Houston now, he noted that what continuously helped him was an understanding of what he calls “the key ingredient to success in this business.”

“My late father, who was a columnist and drama, music and film critic for the Houston Post for 33 years, had a response I never forgot to the question: ‘why did you become a newspaper man?’” Roussel said. “He said that it was because a newspaper is where the world is put together everyday. My late mother, who was also a reporter for the Houston Post, used to say there was no job more exciting than working for the newspapers. But you have to understand that it isn’t about the element of excitement. It’s about hard work. There are no shortcuts in this business.”

While at the White House, Roussel handled the press for the president, responding to reporters and representing the policies and programs of the administration.

As for his career in Washington, it was in 1966 when Roussel was working in his first job as an intern for the advertising and public relations firm Rives, Dyke & Co. that he got a taste of the unique mixture of politics and journalism. The firm was creating television commercials for Texas senator John Towers’ reelection campaign.

“All of a sudden there was this buzzsaw of human activity that came through the hotel lobby, about 15-20 reporters, cameras, tape recorders and pencil press. They were all in a big circle with a person in the middle and they were just moving along, everyone shouting questions,” Roussel said. “Later I asked the agency’s account executive what was going on, and he told me it was Sen. Tower’s press secretary. I thought, this has all the elements of what I’m interested in – it’s journalism and politics and it’s dramatic and exciting.”

Roussel said the decision was easy. “I knew right then that that was what I was going to do,” he said.

“Later, I went over and introduced myself to the press secretary, and he explained that each of the members of congress has a press secretary. He told me, ‘Come to Washington.’”

Roussel eventually met then-U.S. Congressman George H.W. Bush.

“Because of my previous work, I was recommended to him and he called me up one day while in Austin and said, let’s talk, I need a press secretary,” Roussel said. “We visited while walking across the front lawn of the Capitol and that job eventually led to the White House.”

He was campaign press secretary for Bush during his race for U.S. Senate, his two-year stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and during his service as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Following his work with Bush, Roussel served as staff assistant to President Ford from 1974 to 1976. From 1981 to 1987, Roussel served as special assistant and deputy press secretary to former President Reagan.

While under the leadership of Reagan, Roussel gave briefings to the White House press corps, and accompanied Reagan on domestic and foreign trips, including summit meetings with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985 and Iceland in 1986.

On a day to day basis, Roussel said one of the most challenging tasks was trying to get work done while dealing with persistent reporters, noting that at the presidential level, he was dealing with “the smartest, toughest, most aggressive reporters you’ll ever find anywhere.”

“One time I asked Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent and later the bureau chief of United Press International, a woman who has covered every president from Eisenhower to Obama over a span of 57 years, why she stayed in that job so long,” Roussel said. “She replied, ‘all roads lead to Rome’. If you want to be a reporter with the most exciting beat in the world, it is the White House.”

In each of these jobs, Roussel said that he employed a skill he learned from his first job interview – taking initiative.

“I told my father that I felt kind of intimidated going into that first interview out of college, and he said ‘are you kidding? Go in there and ask them the questions!’” Roussel said. “I went in and basically interviewed the boss. In 30 minutes, I only had to answer a few questions because he kept talking. By the time I got home, my mother told me, ‘someone from that office has called and said, under no circumstances are you to take any other job until you come back for another interview.’ Evidently, the technique worked. I advise my students at SHSU to interview the interviewer, too. Having been an employer myself, I always appreciated initiative like that by a job applicant.”

As for Roussel these days, he is no longer immersed in the “frenetic pace” of the White House and working with the press corps there, although, he notes, it is not something he could easily forget.

Instead, he is able to teach classes like his specialized writing class, “The Press and the Presidency” and oversee SHSU’s student run public relations firm Priority One PR, all the while giving students a glimpse of his adventures by taking them “backstage in the media business’ best beat—the White House.”

 

 

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