Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally ran September 12th 2012. We present this encore edition to mark the news that Carney has just resigned his White House Press Sec. post, with a lengthy, never-before published exchange about 9/11 wherein Carney speaks at length about being on Air Force One as a reporter for TIME Magazine on that day.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Back in the spring, MAGNET’s collective jaw dropped when we learned that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared, in the middle of a briefing with the Washington press corps, that Guided By Voices was “the greatest rock band of the modern era.” It’s not often that our musical tastes intersect with those of the spokesperson for the most powerful man on the planet, so we dropped Carney a line and asked if he’d be willing to sit for an interview about his love of Bob Pollard and Co. Surprisingly enough, he said yes, and we found ourselves in the East Wing of the White House grilling the President of the United States’ spokesman about the finer points of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.
MAGNET: You declared Guided By Voices to be the greatest band of the modern era during a press conference in the White House briefing room. I recently watched it again on YouTube, and I noticed that none of the White House press corps followed up on this very provocative declaration that you made. They all seemed to be more interested in Afghanistan and some place called China, and I really have to question the priorities of the lamestream media, as somebody we know would call it. And then last summer, you somehow interpolated (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell with Mitch Mitchell, who is the guitarist in Guided By Voices, and then you said, when trying to steer back to the matters at hand, “OK let’s motor on.” Pretty sure you meant “Motor Away” …
MAGNET: … referring to the song from Alien Lanes. The reason I bring all this up is that nobody in that room got this reference, but we did, sir, and the question is, why doesn’t MAGNET have a permanent seat in that briefing room?
JAY CARNEY: I hereby approve your application for a permanent seat in the briefing room.
JAY CARNEY: I think you’ve earned it by recognizing all of my Guided By Voices references and appreciating them, because I can say, in this job, I get to make my views known in a way I never was able to as a regular reporter for Time magazine, and it’s been especially nice to be extremely declarative about my musical preferences.
MAGNET: My first proper question is a hypothetical: The flying saucers land on the front lawn, and they come down the gang plank and say, “What is this Guided By Voices that the White House press secretary is always talking about?” What is the one song that you would play them to set them straight?
JAY CARNEY: I think “Echos Myron.” Because it might be the perfect pop/rock song. At least since the Beatles broke up, and the reason why I have so much affection for that song is both its perfection and because when I saw GBV at Irving Plaza in ’96 with my GBV buddies, there was a moment in the show—which was the best GBV show I have ever seen—when toward the end they played that, and there was so much extreme happiness there. It was just a perfect moment, a perfect rock ‘n’ roll moment. I just think it’s a fantastic song, and it’s emblematic of the so-called classic lineup’s capacity to take a simple song and make it unforgettable.
MAGNET: I’ve actually had that exact same experience that you’re talking about. It’s a very joyful song. On a related note, another hypothetical: Your house is on fire. God forbid, you only have time to grab one GBV album. Which one do you take with you?
JAY CARNEY: That’s hard. And I won’t cheat by choosing some of the later greatest-hits collections. I would say Bee Thousand.
MAGNET: I would agree with you on that. OK, Tobin Sprout/Mitch Mitchell era or the Doug Gillard era?
JAY CARNEY: Hands down, nothing against the Doug Gillard team, but Tobin and Mitch.
MAGNET: OK, this is a fill-in-the-blank question. The only bad GBV song is …
JAY CARNEY: [Whistles] Here’s the thing: Pollard is so prolific and so good, but being that prolific I think requires that you write some bad songs. And you know, not all of them are great in my opinion. It would be impossible for anyone to achieve that, so I guess if I had to pick … I’m trying to think … I’ll have to think about that a little more …
MAGNET: Well, I’ll help you out here. The judges would have accepted “a song I have never heard and surely hope I never do.” Moving on, has the GBV song “Game Of Pricks” taken on a special resonance given your current vocation?
JAY CARNEY: [Laughs] Well, I hadn’t thought of it before in that context, but I will never think of it otherwise now.
MAGNET: Are you listed in the Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory?
JAY CARNEY: Absolutely. If diehard fans are listed in that directory, I’m in there.
JAY CARNEY: Ha. Never.
MAGNET: Have you ever met a non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake with a wet spot bigger than a Great Lake?
JAY CARNEY: Not that I remember.
MAGNET: We need to know: How does the president come down on the great Bee Thousand-vs.-Alien Lanes debate?
JAY CARNEY: I confess, I have not discussed it with him. In one of the White House press briefings where it came up, somebody asked me if the president was a fan. I said, “I’m working on him,” but the truth is I haven’t. I haven’t brought that into our relationship. MORE
MAGNET: Last question, this is actually a little bit more serious, You were on board Air Force One with President Bush when 9/11 went down. I’m curious what you remember from that day.
JAY CARNEY: Wow. Well, a lot. I remember in the motorcade, y’know, in the press van, the pool van, we spent the night I guess outside of Jacksonville, Florida where he was scheduled to do an education event that day we woke up in September 11th. Beautiful day. The motorcade arrived at the school and I remember right when we talked in the pool was being ushered into the school and someone in the Bush press office—I can’t remember who it was—it wasn’t Arie Fleischer, it was somebody junior, who said to the pool as we were walking in, “A plane has hit one of the world trade center towers. We think it’s a small, like a Cessna or something, but just so you guys know.” And we got ushered into—y’know which is what, which is normal, and at that time, after the first plane hit, nobody really knew what was happening, and that was the first we heard of it, I heard of it. And then we were ushered into that classroom where the president was then going to read to the kids in that class and the way events like that work—I’m obviously on the other side of it now—y’know, the pool comes in and they’re usually behind a rope line or just sort of y’know, in one corner of the room or something so they can watch whatever the president’s doing; speaking, interacting with people, kids, whatever, and that was the set-up with president Bush and these children and he was reading a book to them, which is standard stuff, and then, and at that point, again, all we knew was that a plain had hit one of the towers and nobody was really talking about terrorism or attacks and things, and then that famous moment when Andy Carly, Chief of Staff for the president came in and whispered in his ear and almost concurrently as I recall everybody’s—back then people still had pagers, but they also had cell phones and everybody had put their stuff on vibrate and you could hear the “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” ‘cause everybody’s—well, the second tower had gone down, and as now, famously now, y’know the president continued to read the book and it, it y’know did not seem like an eternity at all. It was a bunch of first graders, I think they were, even, and he finished reading the book and then disappeared and y’know it’s interesting now to be on the other side of this because he would have gone to a room where I was, where I would have been, y’know on the other side of that wall with the president and dealing with the crisis situation like that. Long story short, we went to the cafeteria or gymnasium or wherever he was originally going to speak about education and he said that, y’know “America’s under attack, terrorist attack, I’m going back to Washington.”
And we rushed back into the motorcade and went to wherever Air Force One was, I can’t remember if it was a commercial airport or a military base, and took off like lightening. And back then it was novel, but y’know, you can watch TV on Air Force One, y’know if you’re over land and have a broadcast signal or however they connect it, and so we were watching the towers on TV back in the little press section, and seeing the reports that the president was heading back to Washington, and we, and I remember we were looking out the window and, to see if there were jets, y’know fighter jets, and we couldn’t see anything, but we could, at first we were headed north, we could see the coast and then y’know we could tell when we were banking west, but we didn’t know where we were going and it wasn’t until, it was a long time after, seemed like a long time after we’d had turned left that they were still reporting that the president was coming back to Washington, ‘cause that’s what he said, but—anyway, shortly before we landed in Louisiana, Arie Fleisher came back, my predecessor, and told us what was happening and y’know, it was a dramatic moment, it was incredible thing, and I think that he said, “Everybody can you please leave your cell phones off,” and that’s because at that time they really didn’t know if he was a target, if the plane was a target… We landed at this air base in the middle of the united states and I think there was enough there was so much that was unknown about what was happening and whether or not the president himself or the plane was a target and I remember we landed the plane was surrounded by fully armed combat troops, and we deplaned and went in a little armored motorcade to where they had secure communications for him and that’s where he did, where President Bush did his first statement, which was videotaped because they didn’t have satellite uplink, and it was a small room about the size of this office and the pool was being held there and then the president came in and gave that statement just standing with the backdrop of a flag or something and it was, it was, pretty intense. But long story short, most of us got kicked off, didn’t go to Norad with him, just a handful of the pool went, which was a source of some protest by some of us in the pool, but they sent a plane. I did not make the cut—the pool was normally thirteen people, they cut it down to 5, and I was the magazine pool, and a lot of the president’s staff was also, did not go on to Norad. They sent a plane for us, though, so we actually got back to Washington. It was one of the Vice President’s planes, picked us up and brought us back to Washington. This was the time there was no commercial flights—
MAGNET: Right, everything was grounded.
JAY CARNEY: And I remember landing in, as we were coming into Andrews, you could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon, getting into town and seeing military police on the streets here and my wife was pregnant with my son, eight months pregnant, and she was anchoring, she was doing, she was the news reader for Good Morning America, and since she was pregnant, SO pregnant she couldn’t travel to New York, so she was doing it at a space that ABC had at the Haight Adams [Hey Adams?], across Lafayette Park, with the backdrop of the white house, and as she was news reading, as they were wrapping up the show at 9:00, Charlie Gibson said, “Claire is that smoke?”—they weren’t wrapping up, y’know, the towers had been hit and then they were, Charlie Gibson noticed that behind Claire in a long shot there was smoke behind her, and that was the Pentagon, and that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Anyway, I came looking for my wife at the Haight Adams and it was, like everybody, an unforgettable day.
PREVIOUSLY: EXTRA! EXTRA!: Mr. Phawker Goes To Washington