I hate being called “nice”, says Jen Psaki in US Vogue. Joe Biden’s red-headed press secretary has, in the president’s words, “a steel rod for a spine”. The 42-year-old faces a barrage of questions from reporters every week. She’s funny, firm and nearly always beaming. But nice? “It is like nails on a chalkboard.”
Psaki has been in politics for almost 20 years, after an “early quarter-life crisis” led to a job as a door-knocker in Iowa. The Democrats soon became her life: she married an aide, her sister married Obama’s former speechwriter, and when Psaki was six months pregnant, she got a job as Obama’s communication director. Which is surprising, given that she comes from a family of “hippies”. Her other sister is a peace- and-love-touting Unitarian Universalist minister. Her mother is a therapist. Her father lost everything when she was 11, and declared himself bankrupt. “Was it traumatising? Not really.”
What was stressful was a Russian smear campaign against her. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Psaki, then spokeswoman for the State Department, condemned the attack. Suddenly she was targeted by Russian state media, which started rumours that she was pregnant, called her stupid and published lists of her “most embarrassing fails”. Moscow correspondents in DC assured her it was flattering. “They were, like, this is a badge of honour,” she says. “Your message is getting through, and they need to discredit you. ”
Even now, Psaki riles President Putin. In June he called her “a young, educated, beautiful woman – who’s always mixing things up”. Propaganda isn’t personal, she says. You just have to “be a big girl”.