Robert Gibbs clashed with reporters, ticked off liberals, and served as top TV pitchman for Obama. Howard Kurtz on how Gibbs’ departure will change the White House—and why former press secretaries Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer think he quit. Plus, watch video of Robert Gibbs’ best moments.
Once he’s liberated from the White House podium, don’t expect to see a radically different style from Robert Gibbs.
“When you’re making an argument to the American people who are watching television, being overly sensational or acting crazy doesn’t necessarily help your argument,” says Gibbs, who has compared cable news to professional wrestling. “I don’t know that there’s a ton I’ll say or do differently.” But, he says, “one of the things I can help do for the president is frame some of the policy arguments. I’ll be more focused on the outside political game.”
The press secretary, who announced Wednesday that he’s stepping down in early February, pushed back against criticism that he was perhaps too close to Barack Obama, losing perspective in what Gibbs himself has described as a bubble.
“At times that made my job more difficult,” Gibbs tells me. “Most of the time it was a huge benefit for people who covered this place. I gave those answers as someone who had extensive conversations with and understood the thinking of the president…The biggest rap you always have against the person who holds my job is that he’s someone who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
When Gibbs messed up, it was because he occasionally committed the sin of being candid—saying, for instance, that the Republicans had a real shot at taking the House, as everyone already knew.
Gibbs called the boss “a president I love and respect.” But he also said he’d like to occasionally drive his young son to school.
Press secretaries aren’t supposed to do that. They’re expected to bob and weave and spin—and Gibbs perfected the art of the non-answer—while not trampling the facts.
But there was Gibbs last summer, unloading on the “ professional left,” people who wouldn’t be satisfied until “we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon,” who ought to be “drug tested” for comparing President Obama to George W. Bush. Liberals, professional and otherwise, were not amused.
The 39-year-old Alabama native, who used his slow-talking style as a defensive weapon, was a more constant presence on the tube than his predecessors. He was as much a newsmaker as a news deflector.
“Robert did the Sunday shows, the morning shows,” says former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who generally stayed off such programs. “You can only burn the candle at both ends for so long. There’s a thrill and a rush to doing those shows,” he says, but “to the degree you’re out there talking on the North Lawn, you’re not in meetings, you’re not returning calls.”
Gibbs’ spottiness in returning calls and emails was a sore point with the reporters who covered him and expected to be able to reach the president’s top spokesman. But he is right that his seven-year relationship with Obama, as a Senate aide and campaign flack, greatly enhanced the value of his information—when you could reach him.
The White House had a rough time selling health care and weaving a narrative for Obama’s domestic policies, and Gibbs’ office bears part of the responsibility.
“I’ve never been to a meeting where we discussed a policy that wasn’t working in the White House,” Gibbs says. “We just had meetings where the policy wasn’t being communicated properly. I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek.” But didn’t that bug him? “You sort of get used to it,” he says.
Anita Dunn, who worked with Gibbs as Obama’s first communications director, agrees: “It’s always easy to blame communications. Robert offered the press corps something they’ve never had before: someone who was in all the important meetings and had a window into the president’s thinking. There’s no one mold for a perfect press secretary. I recall grumbling about press secretaries who were seen as not in the loop.”
Mike McCurry recalls hearing similar complaints when he was Bill Clinton’s White House spokesman, occasionally prompting him to respond: “The problem is our policy. It’s not working. It’s not just how you sell it to the dogs if the dogs aren’t eating the food.” Until this week, the leading candidates for the spokesman’s spot were thought to be Bill Burton, Gibbs’s deputy, and Jay Carney, a veteran Time correspondent before becoming Vice President Biden’s communications director. But the president’s decision Thursday to tap William Daley as his new chief of staff scrambles the jets, and some close to the White House say the Chicagoan may want to fill that job with an outsider.
While clearly a presidential salesman, Gibbs sometimes functioned as the media’s advocate. In November, when Indian security aides in New Delhi tried to limit the number of American reporters admitted to a session with Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Gibbs lodged his foot in a closing door, stuck his finger in an official’s face, and threatened to pull the president if access wasn’t granted. And during the campaign, he privately argued one day against dispatching the press plane to Chicago, only to have reporters learn that the candidate was secretly meeting Hillary Clinton back in Washington. It was Gibbs who faced a barrage of angry questions for the campaign’s deception.
Such clashes were not unusual in 2008. When Gibbs objected to Newsweek’s coverage, including a cover portraying Obama as the elitist “arugula” candidate, the campaign suddenly stopped cooperating with the magazine’s behind-the-scenes book project. Gibbs says he limited Newsweek’s access, which was restored after reporter Evan Thomas flew to Detroit to assuage him, because the magazine was pushing what Gibbs saw as a false narrative that Obama couldn’t connect with working-class voters.
As for occasional shouting matches with journalists, Gibbs later acknowledged that “there were a couple of times that I flew off the handle.”
He matured in office, made greater use of humor, and was more likely to carp about unfavorable stories with a sharply worded email, sometimes before dawn.
“Robert can be combative, but he is also very effective,” Dunn says. “He was candid with the press corps. When he couldn’t talk about something, he’d tell them that.”
He gradually became a new-media buff, sharing his thoughts on Twitter and even fielding questions from his 131,000 followers as @PressSec. He offered a video farewell Wednesday on the White House blog.
Gibbs was so close to Obama that campaign aides dubbed him “the Barack Whisperer.” And he made his affection clear at the briefing, calling the boss “a president I love and respect.” But he also said he’d like to occasionally drive his young son to school.
He’s hardly disappearing from the orbit; in fact, his new office is three blocks from the White House. Gibbs told me he’ll do “some informal stuff” for the nascent Obama reelection campaign “fairly immediately” and take on a formal role down the road.
Fleischer, who lasted 2 1/2 years, calls being press secretary “the ultimate burnout job.” McCurry offers a slightly different take on Gibbs’s exit:
“It’s an opportunity to put a new face at the White House podium and try some different things. He’d pretty well had it with the White House press corps, and the press corps had pretty well had it with him.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.