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Five Questions with Jeanie Mamo

One of a handful of staffers to serve all eight years on President Bush’s staff, Jeanie earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues through her tireless dedication and unrelenting commitment to high standards. She was also a blast to work with and a favorite of everyone on the President’s team. Today, she is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. In this month’s “Five Questions With…” feature, Jeanie pulls the curtain back on the making of Barney Cam.

December 17, 2020 //   11 minute read

As Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Director of Media Affairs, Jeanie Mamo had a wide range of responsibilities. She was responsible for all media outside the White House press corps, including specialty outlets, regional media and radio.  The Spanish language spokesperson reported to Jeanie, along with the White House Internet Director, the Radio Director and the Regional Spokespersons. It’s quite possible that her favorite part of the job was producing the annual Barney Cam video, in which President Bush’s Scottish Terrier played a starring role in bringing the White House holiday spirit to the world.

One of a handful of staffers to serve all eight years on President Bush’s staff, Jeanie earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues through her tireless dedication and unrelenting commitment to high standards.  She was also a blast to work with and a favorite of everyone on the President’s team.  Today, she is a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. In this month’s “Five Questions With…” feature, Jeanie pulls the curtain back on the making of Barney Cam.

Q:  Can you walk us through the origin of Barney Cam, including how President Bush responded when the idea was proposed and how it became an annual production?

Barney Cam started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because White House tours were canceled during Christmas and we wanted to find a way to show the decorations. Jimmy Orr had the original idea.  We tried putting a camera on Barney, but he was having none of that. So, the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) camera operators followed Barney around at about knee level as he wandered around the State Floor of the White House to show off the decorations. White House Grounds Superintendent Dale Haney was the only person who could get Barney to follow him, so we are eternally grateful to the WHCA team, Scott Sforza, Adam Belmar, and David Almacy in the White House. 

Each year it got a little more involved as we started to tell a more elaborate story. Mrs. Bush was in the closing shots wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, holding Barney, Miss Beazley and Kitty. I was a big fan of Kitty and Mrs. Bush definitely wanted Kitty involved. There was one challenge: Trying to get a cat to walk around on cue. Somehow, we did it! Those kudos belong to Maria Galvan, who worked in the Residence. Mrs. Bush showed the videos at her annual visit to Children’s National Hospital in D.C. and the kids loved it. It was tricky to do as we tried to make it “kid friendly,” but also have a story line and some humor for adults. I was worried we had failed one year when I went to the Staff Secretary’s office to hand off the radio address and Raul Yanes’ whole family was in his office. His daughter Grace was about 3 or 4 years old then, so I asked Chi Chi (as Raul was known) if she wanted to see it. She crawled up in my lap and we watched it together on the computer. When it was over, she pressed her hand into my knee – with some disgust—jumped down and said, “too much talking!” I was a little concerned, but Chi Chi and I burst into laughter.

Q:  In 2016, former White House correspondent Olivier Knox described Barney Cam as one of the earliest incidences of the national media giving coverage to an in-house digital product.  In addition to being a fun, holiday project, was Barney Cam groundbreaking from a White House communications standpoint?

It was groundbreaking.  It was definitely a big hit and got 24 million website views, along with cable and network coverage. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work for so many. I am eternally grateful to the WHCA team, Scott Sforza, Adam Belmar, the White House Ushers Office, the First Lady’s office, the cabinet members and their comms staffs, White House staffers, world leaders, Olympic athletes, professional golfers, country music singers, former NFL stars and, of course, to President and Mrs. Bush, who were enthusiastic about it every year. It was a big project – and a team effort-- squeezed into about three weeks’ time and had to be shot amid all the White House activities that occurred during Christmas time.

Q:  The list of celebrities who participated, from Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson to Prime Minister Tony Blair, NBC Sports’ Jimmy Roberts and athletes like Emmitt Smith, Michael Phelps and members of the winning Ryder Cup team, was impressive.  What do you remember about those celebrity interactions?

Every one of the celebrities/athletes/sports figures were genuinely thrilled to be a part of it. They knew it was for an important cause. Dolly Parton was indeed the same person you see on TV. She said her lines in one take and we were sad her part wasn’t bigger. When I went to hand Prime Minister Blair his script he said, “Oh, no need, I’ve got it.” It also took him just one take. He told me the President had mentioned Barney Cam to him and he knew that it was special for the kids at Children’s Hospital.

Michael Phelps’ participation was one of the most harrowing. He had just won eight gold medals in Beijing and was in great demand. He had agreed to do Barney Cam, but he arrived late for the South Lawn ceremony so there was no time to brief him beforehand. I was standing at the back of the of the event, as Phelps was swarmed by the crowd, wondering “how are we going to get him to the Map Room to do this shot?” And then I saw Garrett Weber-Gayle in the crowd. He had swum the second leg of the 400-Meter Freestyle with Phelps. I walked over to him and told him what we were doing and asked if he could help get Michael to the Map Room for the shoot. I knew that Phelps would respond to him better than a White House staffer he had never met. And we were on a tight time schedule. Weber-Gayle was thrilled to help. He whistled at Phelps and he came right over. Weber-Gayle pushed his way through the throngs of people still trying to get to Phelps – with Phelps in tow – and we made our way to the Map Room. Weber-Gayle had been so helpful I wanted to find a way to put him in Barney Cam. Belmar was great at ad-libbing and said, “No worries, Mamo, he can hold up the ‘10’ sign with Phelps.” Belmar always had a solution, and he knew I was always worried! Weber-Gayle was so great – what a terrific person – and a Longhorn no less! 

It was a thrill to have the victorious 2008 Ryder Cup team involved. They were patient and seemed to have fun themselves on the White House putting green. Jimmy Roberts was so kind to record the voiceover for the 2008 Barney Cam. He was perfect for it as an NBC golf announcer and Olympic contributor. It wouldn’t have worked without him. I am a big fan.

Q:  Do you have a favorite edition or Barney Cam moment?

There were so many favorite moments. The last year was so special, but I was so exhausted in 2008. I had asked Anita McBride if Mrs. Bush would be ok with a script where Barney went “on strike” due to his “contract demands” – since after six years of Barney Cam he had become quite famous and was demanding more money.  I thought maybe we could just show the decorations without an elaborate script and shoot. I was sitting at my desk one morning and my phone rang. I looked at the receiver and it said “First Lady’s Sitting Room”—hmmmm… I thought…surely that is Anita or someone else. I picked up the phone. It was Mrs. Bush. She said, “hello, Jeanie, this is Laura Bush…. That is all I heard. I think I blacked out. I remember responding “yes ma’am… yes ma’am… of course… yes ma’am, Mrs. Bush.” Anita called about two minutes later and said she had tried to let me know Mrs. Bush would be calling about Barney Cam but she couldn’t get to her phone fast enough. I told her I hadn’t really heard what Mrs. Bush had said because I was in shock. She laughed and said, “Mrs. Bush called to thank you for doing Barney Cam this year.” And I really do think it ended up being the best version of Barney Cam because it had the whole Bush family in it, including Henry Hager.

Q:  You are one of a handful of staffers who served all eight years in the White House. What are your favorite memories, moments or lessons learned from your time?

There are so many special memories. It was the privilege of a lifetime to serve President and Mrs. Bush. I will always remember Andy Card talking about the importance of being humble. That was an important lesson then and it remains especially important today. It really is true that you don’t think about the stressful times – and there were many—you remember the great times -- and the difference President and Mrs. Bush made in the world -- with PEPFAR, and the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council --and the strength they showed and the comfort they provided on 9/11; the example they set for America. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had and for the lifelong friendships I made in those truly special years. I miss them every day.