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New Pentagon Press Secretary Prepares to Take Podium

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2007 – Geoff Morrell, a former correspondent for ABC’s “World News Tonight” Saturday and Sunday editions, will soon take the podium as the new Pentagon press secretary. (Video)

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Geoff Morrell, a former ABC News correspondent who now serves as the Pentagon press secretary, will interface regularly with news media representatives to help keep them updated on issues affecting the Defense Department and the military. Defense Dept. photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On World News Tonight, Morrell asked the questions. In his new job, he’ll be answering reporters’ questions on a regular basis. He plans to start talking with the press on a daily basis to explain Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ and the department’s position on various issues. In addition, he’ll do regular on-camera briefings from the podium.

But unlike Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, Morrell said he doesn’t expect to present daily on-camera briefings. Rather, he said he expects to brief weekly or semi-weekly, and will continue to offer subject-matter experts for briefings as well.

Gates also will continue briefing the media directly. “He’s not afraid to talk to the press, obviously, and he does it with great regularity” during near-weekly news briefings that typically run about 45 minutes, Morrell pointed out.

“So I think he has ample opportunity to communicate with the press,” he said. “But does he have the time on an everyday basis to update people on where the Pentagon is, where he is on certain issues? No. And that’s where I can help him.”

Preparing for that is “a daunting proposition,” Morrell said. To get himself to that point, he’s “trying to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can so I can be as helpful as I can to the secretary and the press corps.”

Unlike most people in the Pentagon who flee heavy meeting schedules, Morrell seeks them out. He attends as many as possible, particularly those involving Gates, “to learn as much as I can about what he thinks, about how he communicates, about what his priorities are and about how he interacts with people,” Morrell said.

Just a month into the job, Morrell said he’s getting “a pretty good sense” of Gates’ style.

He called the secretary “a very careful listener and an equally careful communicator” who “is very precise about what he says.”

He’s funny, too, Morrell said. “You don’t necessarily get that sense from his podium appearances – after all, this is a time of war and we are dealing with very serious issues. But he is a guy with a sense of humor and likes to interject humor into situations.”

When he’s not in meetings, Morrell is spending time with as many subject-matter experts as possible to learn about their issues, particularly the “hot topics.” Among them is the war – an issue that Morrell said he knows will dominate his time as press secretary.

He recognizes he’s come to the Defense Department at a challenging time and recognizes why the media is asking tough questions. “Clearly, the atmosphere is a difficult one, and you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that this conflict, as protracted as it is and the polls reflect, is an unpopular one with many Americans,” he said. “And I think the press corps’ questions at times reflect the fact that it’s gone on a long time and at great cost to the country.”

But Morrell said he and others working at the Pentagon “believe that this is a fight worth fighting and that -- although painful at times, although unpopular at times, although aggravating, heartbreaking – it is worth the sacrifice and must be fought to victory.”

If he didn’t believe that, Morrell said he couldn’t be an effective press secretary. “I am not of the belief that I can come over here and be a professional mouthpiece and divorce my personal beliefs from the podium,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s not about what I think of the war. It’s not about how I think we are running the war. But I don’t think anybody should take a position of this responsibility unless they are comfortable advocating and articulating the department’s positions.”

Morrell said he hopes he can help amplify Gates’ belief that the war on terror “is worth fighting and that it’s winnable.”

He also hopes to get across a message that he believes gets lost in debate about the war. Hostility over that debate “taints the hard work and the enormous sacrifice of the men and women in uniform,” he said.

Morrell said the interactions he’s had with veterans of the conflict convinces him that most believe in what they’re fighting for. “And I sometimes believe that there is so much … fighting among political interests in Washington that it somehow overshadows the enormous sacrifice and the enormous commitment of the men and women in uniform to this mission,” he said.

As he represents the Defense Department and the military, Morrell said he also recognizes his responsibility to give the straight facts to the American people. “They have a right to know what is going on here,” he said. “And ultimately, no matter how committed the military is, you need the country behind you to be successful.”

A Washington native, Morrell acknowledged he’s not from the typical Washingtonian family with strong ties to the government or military. His parents attended Georgetown University, fell in love with the city and settled down in Georgetown to raise their three children.

Morrell, the oldest of them, said growing up around journalists and people serving in government and politics steered him toward his career in television news. He remembers watching his next-door-neighbor, Peter Jennings, go to work in the mornings, then appear on TV each night. “And I thought that was one of the coolest jobs you could possibly have, so I decided at a pretty young age that I wanted to pursue that,” he said.

Like his parents, he attended Georgetown University and got a job as a summer intern with ABC News in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait. That event turned Morrell’s internship into a full-fledged job as a desk assistant, answering phones, making photocopies, running scripts around the building and doing whatever else needed to be done.

“The beauty of that job is that…you get to see the entire operation,” he said. “Unlike a typical corporate structure where the decisions are being made on the executive floor and the worker bees are removed from them, in television, you got to see Jennings in action, you got to see the executive producer making his decisions, you got to see how all these decisions were made and the product got put together. And so it was an incredible opportunity.”

Morrell was hooked. He worked at ABC through his senior year at Georgetown, and while still at Columbia University in New York getting his graduate degree in journalism.

As much as Morrell loved working at ABC, he said he knew he had to leave the network to get on-camera experience. “I wanted to be the reporter, I wanted to be the storyteller,” he said.

He started doing local news with the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., as Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off. “It was a great first job because Little Rock then was the epicenter of the world, or at least the political world, with this upstart Arkansas governor who had come out of nowhere to capture the Democratic nomination and was challenging … a victorious wartime president for his job,” he said.

Working in Little Rock gave Morrell a better understanding of how “real Americans” – those who live beyond the Beltway – view Washington, he said.

“We have such a tendency to become so self-important here, and it was eye-opening for me…To live in a place like Little Rock gave me a much better perspective of how most Americans view what goes on here in Washington, and that we are a little too self-important at times and they are able to get along just fine without us doing all the things we do here.”

From there, Morrell graduated from one TV market to another, reporting in Lynchburg and Roanoke, Va., Phoenix, Ariz., then Chicago.

Having climbed his way from small TV markets to the nation’s third largest TV market “was a big deal for me,” he admitted. “I had a great, great time,” he said, but after three years he knew that he wanted to get back to ABC News as a network correspondent. He joined ABC’s Chicago bureau and covered “anything that you could get to from O’Hare Airport – hurricanes, floods, fires, plane crashes.”

He later transferred to ABC News’ Washington Bureau to serve as its weekend White House correspondent.

When he got the offer to become the Pentagon press secretary, Morrell said he jumped at the opportunity for “a new adventure.” He’d been looking for something interesting and challenging, and an opportunity to serve.

“It’s a terrific opportunity. I’m honored to be asked and I’m even more honored to serve,” he said.

He said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to dive into the deep end of the pool.

“Is it going to be an adjustment? Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side of the podium. I’ve been the one asking questions, which is not easy, but I daresay it is probably easier than having to be responsible for the answers to all those questions.”

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