His eyes light up and a grin slowly spreads across his face as the craft he has honed for more than 40 years resurfaces.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t have anything for you on that right now.”
After dealing with droves of venomous reporters from the steps of the White House on a daily basis, former presidential deputy press secretary Peter Roussel said he is prepared for anything, including a question about his candidacy for the Warner Chair position in the Mass Communication Department.
On Thursday, Rousel talked about his experiences as the mouthpiece for Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with several Mass Communications classes, giving students a glimpse of the inner workings of presidential politics and the personal impacts left by his former bosses.
“Ford was very down to earth and very comfortable with himself. He was a very comforting presence for Americans following Nixon,” Rousel said of his first presidential employer. “Reagan had a very unique personality; he had strong convictions and really believed in what he was doing. Bush was always very calm under pressure and he was very fair-minded – terrific to work with. His leadership inspired me to work harder for him.”
With both of his parents working for The Houston Post, Roussel always assumed he would enter the field of journalism. But after watching a press conference during an advertising campaign for a local senator, Roussel knew it was time to change his plans.
“I had an epiphany,” Roussel said. “I saw the press secretary speak at the press conference and I was inspired. I never even knew that job existed.”
Roussel quickly made his way to Washington D.C., where he says all aspiring press secretaries must go, and began to make a name for himself as press secretary for Bush, then a U.S. congressman, in 1969.
His first assignment in the White House came in 1974 as a staff assistant under Ford. Two terms as press secretary to Reagan and Bush soon followed and before the Berlin Wall could crumble, Roussell found he was living a dream he never knew he had.
“There aren’t many slow days – that’s just the job,” Roussell said. “But I thrived on the pressure. You are on all of the time and you can’t let your guard slip; there is no free lunch.”
After thousands of press conferences, Roussell got to know many of the reporters from CBS, NBC and ABC on a personal level. Yet after seeing such famous faces as Helen Thomas at his door at 6:30 every morning for years at a time, Roussell said the challenge was to learn how to separate work from personal friendships.
“The first time, my mindset was wrong,” He said. “[The reporters] would offer to take me out to lunch and I would say, ‘Sure!’ But in the middle of it, they would lean over and say, ‘So, what can you tell me about this?’ or ‘How does the president feel about this issue?’ It’s hard not to be personal but I learned that line is always there; the friendship ends at the podium.”
In over four decades of experience at the national level, Roussell remembers handling the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court as one of the biggest tasks of his career. As the first woman appointed to the nations highest judicial entity, O’Connor was the first major test for Roussell, who was handling one of his first assignments for President Reagan.
While the daily grind of speaking for the leader of the free world has its historical moments, Roussell said the real reward comes from serving his country. No matter which president he worked for or which reporter’s question he answered, Roussell’s main goal was to do the best job possible for both the president and the millions of citizens whose only information came from his mouth.
“I saw myself as an American working for America,” Roussell said. “Working in the White House is such an honor that I value and appreciate and I got to do it twice. I tried to return that honor by doing my best. I just said to myself, ‘Give it all you’ve got’.”
His time at the helm of communication for United States presidents may have passed, but the old spark isn’t gone. Roussell still uses his skills to teach as a public relations consultant and frequent television commentator.
His knowledge of political communication may be headed for Sam Houston State University next semester, but as his training and experience taught him to do so well, Roussell will leave that question unanswered until a later date.
“I miss it sometimes,” he said. “I watch press conferences on television and think, ‘I don’t think I would have said that,’ or, ‘I would have done that a little differently.’ I will always be interested in the press and presidential politics. There is never a dull day in the White House.”