Rear Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday that he will be stepping down as Pentagon press secretary to allow new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to pick his own chief spokesman.
“I’ve enjoyed almost every day of it,” Kirby said jokingly to Pentagon reporters at one his regular news briefings. Kirby did not say whether he would remain in the Navy or choose to retire after 28 years in uniform.
The announcement came as a surprise to much of the press corps, who respected Kirby for his accessibility and willingness to deal at length with tough questions. Kirby said that Carter had not yet made a decision on a successor.
Kirby said he could not speak to Carter’s reasons for wanting a new press secretary but he suggested that Carter could be “sort of revisiting the role of spokesman here” and “whether it’s appropriate or not to have a uniform up here” as chief spokesman.
“Honestly, it hasn’t been a problem for me,” Kirby said of speaking for the defense secretary and the military while in uniform.
However, he said the particular focus of the Pentagon press corps was likely a factor in his ability to avoid the appearance of bias. “You don’t cover the building from a political viewpoint,” he said.
Kirby rose to prominence as a long-time aide, spokesman and speechwriter for Adm. Mike Mullen, who retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was serving as the Navy’s chief of information (CHINFO) when he succeeded George Little, the former chief spokesman for the CIA, as the Pentagon press secretary.
Kirby often jousted with the press over the exact meanings of the sometimes obscure words he would inject into the back-and-forth of a press conference. A favorite of his was the verb “zorch.”
Kirby received quite a few questions from the press when he used the word at a 2012 new conference only to come back later to announce that, indeed, there was such a word and that it meant "to move or propel rapidly" in naval aviation slang.
Kirby began his naval career as a surface warfare officer aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Aubrey Fitch, before switching to public affairs.
In previous assignments, he was public affairs officer with the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (Blue Angels); editor-in-chief of the Navy's Flagship monthly magazine, All Hands; and special assistant for public affairs to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com