Gibbs Gaffes Again, Tradition Continues

A look back at some choice press secretary faux pas

Robert Gibbs had clearly come down with an acute case of “being human” when he spoke to The Hill’s Sam Youngman for that interview published yesterday morning. Not a good condition for any White House press secretary to be operating under. Gibbs’s most obvious symptom, to the human ear and eye, was a fit of “saying-what-you-actually-think” matched by a troubling deficiency in his “brain-to-mouth-tone-down-filtration” function. The result was pretty messy. Of the “professional left,” the out-of-sorts Gibbs let slip:

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”


“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”


“They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

Of course, Gibbs dosed up on Tylenol and had a mea culpa out before noon. Admitting he watches “too much cable” and that he spoke “inartfully”—note, these are probably the most “artful” sentences he has ever spoken in his current post—Gibbs returned finely to robotic podium-boy form. (Though it wasn’t enough for Glenn Greenwald, Keith Olbermann, and others.)

So we should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences on certain policies, and instead work together to make sure everyone knows what is at stake because we’ve come too far to turn back now.

Might have cribbed that from his boss, circa 2008.

Perhaps simply because they speak so much, in front of so many people, and because the issues they have to discuss include pretty much everything you could conceivably ever talk about, White House press secretaries are prone to these sorts of gaffes. So, in honor of yesterday’s big blunder—for which Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison called for Gibbs’s resignation—we thought we’d take a look back at some recent press secretary gaffes. We begin with Gibbs himself, and ask you to add your own memories in the comments section.

1. Robert Gibbs on Dick Cheney, March 2009.

In March of last year, Gibbs went all human again when asked to respond to Dick Cheney’s suggestion on CNN’s State of the Union with John King that president Obama’s policies had made the country less safe. Rather than a simple “no comment” or “artful” objection, Gibbs replied:

Well, I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.

If you ask us, it’s a little tepid, the kind of insult you’d expect exchanged between scientists in a war of peer-reviewed journal articles. Nonetheless, Gibbs was forced to dial it back when asked by a reporter in the briefing room if his was “the sanctioned tone for the former Vice President of the United States, from this White House?” Gibbs responded by acknowledging that in the White House, much like the airport, there is no room for humor where terrorism is involved. Quoth Gibbs: “I hope my sarcasm didn’t mask the seriousness of the answer … that for seven-plus years, the very perpetrators that the vice president says he’s concerned about weren’t brought to justice.” He also admitted, “Sometimes I ask for forgiveness rather than for permission.”

2. Dana Perino and the Cuban Missile Crisis (?), December 2007.

For the left, Perino was kind of a gift that kept on gaffing. Not long after she had done the truly unthinkable (at least at the time) and given Helen Thomas a sharp and public talking-to, Perino got very human indeed on NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me. Embracing the fun, sharing spirit of the program, Perino admitted that she had once panicked at a White House briefing when asked about the Cuban Missile Crisis, because she didn’t know what it was. From The Washington Post’s report:

“I was panicked a bit because I really don’t know about … the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. “It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure.”

So she consulted her best source. “I came home and I asked my husband,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Wasn’t that like the Bay of Pigs thing?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Dana.’”

This may be the exchange she was referring to:

It was another case of “Oh, Dana” when Perino, no longer press secretary, appeared on Fox News last year and declared, “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.”

3. Tony Snow and the “tar baby,” May 2006.

A popular and polished press secretary, the late Tony Snow made perhaps his biggest boo-boo in only his first televised press conference. In response to a question about domestic spying, Snow said:

I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

You can see it at about three minutes into this video…

When asked by a reporter to put the phrase “tar baby” into English, Snow replied, “…we could trace that back to American lore.” Some said that Snow was given a pass on using a phrase the Times wrote, “carries vague racist connotations — it has been used as a derogatory term for a black.” But our own Edward B. Colby noted that bloggers came down hard. Think Progress published a memorandum to the freshman press secretary and former Fox man:

Based on the context of the term, we believe you meant tar baby to mean: “a situation almost impossible to get out of; a problem virtually unsolvable.”

But in “American lore,” the expression tar baby is also a racial slur “used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people.” Use of the term has resulted in demands that people be fired.

As Random House notes, “some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.” Now that you are no longer at Fox News, you may want to take them up on their advice.

It wasn’t enough to “tar”nish Snow’s rep (I know, I know) and, just two months later, after the mini scandal had faded, it was not enough to stop Mitt Romney from making the same mistake.

Well, as they say in our profession, three’s a trend. That’s a start to what could be a mammoth list. We’d encourage you all to jot down your favorite memories of press secretaries “being human,” flubbing their lines, or flat-out lying. While you’re thinking, we leave you with these final words from everyone’s favorite White House spokesperson.

“It’s a classic Washington scandal. We got in trouble for telling the truth.”

Thank you, C.J. Cregg.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.