It might come as a shock to the White House press corps that Robert Gibbs claims he likes them—he really likes them.
“I do,” President Obama’s chief spokesman insists. “If you did not like the job of being press secretary and you did not like the people you have to deal with, it would be the worst job on the planet. Every day I pick up the paper at 6 a.m. and groan, ‘OK, I’m going to have to go out and explain this.’ If you didn’t like that, you would be miserable in about a week, and it would be an untenable situation for you to want to even get out of bed. But I greatly enjoy what I do.”
Maybe Gibbs does like reporters. And yet, 15 months in, where’s the love?
“Any time you have the relationship that we have in this country between spokespeople in the administration and working press, there’s always going to be some chafing,” says Gibbs.
Some in the press corps suppose they detect a whiff of contempt from this White House. If not from Gibbs personally, it seems to be coming from his boss, who, like every president before him, uses the media as whipping boy (or, in Obama’s case, a target of ridicule, which is even worse) when coverage is not to his liking.
“I am stunned by how many times in presidential remarks, for instance at fundraisers, it’s a standard line to go after the media,” NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd observed Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. “Why punch down?.... You know that phrase, ‘Never punch at somebody below you’? Well, if they believe they’re above it, stop punching down.”
With a peaceable serenity for which he was seldom credited during the 2008 presidential campaign, Gibbs tells me: “If there’s a press shop in any business or in any level of government... who doesn’t complain about some aspects of their coverage, then I would posit that here’s a group of people who isn’t reading their coverage. There’s always going to be issues of access on their side. There are always going to be issues on our side. That’s just the nature of the relationship…. Any time you have the relationship that we have in this country between spokespeople in the administration and working press, there’s always going to be some chafing.”
It has been an especially abrasive couple of months in the James S. Brady Briefing Room, where the press corps and the president’s communications staff are thrown together in close quarters, sometimes doing their impersonation of scorpions in a BlackBerry. Bloomberg News’ Ed Chen, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, caught the mood when he told Politico this past weekend: “In my 10-plus years at the White House, rarely have I sensed such a level of anger, which is wide and deep, among members over White House practices and attitude toward the press.”
An escalating series of miscues and conflicts have set tempers at a boil. Gibbs’ disgruntled wards in the Fourth Estate complain about the dearth of formal presidential news conferences; the barring of reporters and photographers from asking questions and taking photos at Obama’s meetings with foreign leaders at last week’s Nuclear Security Summit; the frequent use of presidential photographer Pete Souza’s handouts instead allowing photojournalists into significant White House events; and, worst of all, Obama’s ditching the White House press pool April 10th to attend a daughter’s soccer game. At Chen’s request after the latest outrage, the press secretary scheduled a private bitchfest last Thursday. It lasted 75 minutes in Gibbs’ West Wing office—practically an EST session by White House standards. (Another issue reportedly raised: the access granted Richard Wolffe, a Daily Beast columnist who is writing a book about Obama this spring.)
“We started the meeting with me relaying the real gratitude and respect the first lady and the president have for the way the press corps have dealt with the children,” Gibbs says soothingly. “That was an issue that was obviously very important to them… and [the media] have been fabulous in letting two young girls who didn’t get involved in this because of decisions they made, ensuring they had some privacy.”
All the more reason for the press corps to be dismayed when Obama gave the slip to the pool—the “body watch,” which is charged with following the president whenever he ventures forth, just in case something newsworthy (read: disastrous) occurs.
“It was understandable from their point of view, and the president recognized it, and we recognized it,” Gibbs says about the uproar. “It was certainly inadvertent—and not to be repeated.”
Here’s another shocker for the skeptical White House press corps: Gibbs insists that part of his job is looking out for their interests. “Any press secretary has to serve in both roles,” he says. “You have to be a spokesperson for the policies and decisions of any administration, and at the same time you have to protect the prerogatives of the press in what happens each day at the White House.”
Gibbs is personally close to the president and enjoys Oval Office walk-in privileges, so if he really is speaking truth to power and working on behalf of the press corps, let’s expect quick results. In the meantime, he has relaxed into his job, nominally one of the highest-stress gigs in Washington, where a slipup at the podium could prompt a stock-market crash or an international incident. He’s apparently so comfortable that he’s finding time during the work day to go kayaking and bike-riding, and then tweeting about it to his 55,600-odd followers.
“Just finished 15 miles on the new bike—more hills and lots of wind today but still a pretty day,” Gibbs announced Saturday at 1:22 p.m. on his official White House Twitter account.“Just spent 45 mins kayaking Potomac - beautiful on the water - 1st day open for Jack's Boathouse (Water St under Key Bridge - check it out),” he shared at 4:23 p.m. last Thursday.
“The truth is, having traveled with [Obama] on the campaign, you're working so much and by the end of the day you're just so exhausted, I let my health go,” the 39-year-old Gibbs tells me. “I gained weight. Now, I'm a little bit more settled this year, and being able to get outside, particularly now when it’s so gorgeous, whether it is to bike up MacArthur Boulevard or kayak on the Potomac, it’s a great way to clear your head, get some exercise and get a little bit of rejuvenation.”
Gibbs, who joined the Obama juggernaut during the 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois and now finds himself in a place he could barely have imagined, says he’s not keeping a diary of his White House experiences.
“Notes, but not a diary,” he tells me. “I’m not disciplined enough to do a diary every day.”
Are notes discoverable? “I don’t know,” Gibbs answers with a laugh. “I might be in a lot of trouble for having just given that answer.”
Why did Obama once compare his press secretary to Don Corleone’s level-headed consigliere Tom Hagen, with perhaps a touch of the hot-tempered Sonny?
“My guess is that he just finished watching The Godfather,” Gibbs says, mentioning the president’s favorite movie, Obama’s answer to Nixon’s Patton. “Look, other than probably David [Axelrod], I’ve been with him longer than anybody else. We’ve been through a lot of different times together. He has taken us all on a remarkable journey.”
Gibbs and Axelrod apparently still haven’t quite acclimated themselves to the altitude. “He always jokes that Axe and I are usually the last ones out of our chairs when he walks in,” Gibbs reports. “The truth is, I’m in my seventh year of working for him. He is, in almost every way, the same person he was when I met him as a state senator. I think that says a lot about who he is and who Michelle is. We’re obviously in different surroundings.”
Is Gibbs worried about what might end up in Bob Woodward’s book about the Obama White House?
“I hope not,” Gibbs replies, laughing again. “I don’t doubt that Bob will have the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on, because I usually learn about the process when I sit down with Bob about a topic—because he’s better-sourced than even those of us who work in the administration.”
Gibbs confides that he’s given up his dreams of running for public office—something that at least one of his predecessors, JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger, tried unsuccessfully after Governor Pat Brown appointed him a U.S. senator from California.
“I used to think that’s what I wanted to do,” Gibbs says, “and then I decided the best way I could help would be to do a little bit of what I’m doing now. I can firmly rule out ever running for elective office?”
A Sherman-like statement?
“Completely. I am shutting the door and locking it.”
Gibbs started out two decades ago as an intern on Capitol Hill, and still seems to feel that he’s found his calling. “In many ways, I’m still wildly idealistic about what it means to be in public service and what you can accomplish in order to make people’s lives just a little bit better,” he says. “I think it’s a tremendous honor. I remember driving into the White House at the very beginning. You’re on the Ellipse south of the White House, you look back, you see the building itself, and I remember saying to myself that if I ever drove here in the morning and didn’t think to myself, ‘Wow, you’re at the White House! You’re working 50 feet away from where the president of the United States is working!’—if that ever lost its allure, if that ever lost its ability to make your heart beat a little faster, that would be the day I would go in, type a quick letter, sign it and give someone else the opportunity…. Thus far, my heart still quickens.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.