Goodbye Mr. Gibbs

CJR's writings on the outgoing press secretary

Press secretary Robert Gibbs announced yesterday that he would be stepping down from his position in February. The timing of the announcement was a bit of a last-gasp masterstroke from a man not often noted for brilliance in his post—what should have been newly installed speaker of “the people’s House” John Boehner’s day was split between the speaker and the spokesman by the time the primetime pundits hit the airwaves. For a bonus, Nancy “19 missing votes” Pelosi drew much less attention that she may have otherwise done. Mission: Accomplished.

There’s some good stuff floating around on Gibbs’s departure today and some of the usual smart speculation on just who will step up to replace him. A front page Times piece on the White House shakeup—can we retire that one from the chyrons, please?—says likely chief of staff William M. Daley would favor an outsider for the position. Glenn Thrush at Politico is reporting that the hunt for a replacement has slowed down to allow for the input of incoming adviser David Plouffe, though DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney is on a “growing list.” If you can get past some of the mid-paragraph thematic hairpin turns, and the Pollock-esque splattering of comments—from usual suspects like Anita Dunn and Ari Fleischer—Howard Kurtz’s piece is a diverting trip down memory lane. (Though you could probably skip it and go straight to the Daily Beast’s video.) John Dickerson at Slate muses particularly interestingly on Gibbs’s post W.H. challenges.

We thought we’d join the pack and take our own little trip down memory lane, spotlighting some of CJR’s past writings on press secretary Gibbs. He never really got a lot of love from us—who does, really, aside from the odd Monkeycager—but he provided for some interesting moments, and some interesting posts.

Shades of Richard Nixon Our resident health care watcher Trudy Lieberman saw shades of Dick in the White House’s evasiveness on the president’s health care positions back in July 2009—and Gibbs was the shadowed face of the cloaked administration. Gibbs chided the press for not acknowledging the administration’s strides in getting endorsements from doctors, drug manufacturers, hospitals, the AARP… Lieberman, of course, was having none of it.

Peer Presser Back in March of 2009 we began to wonder, as we still do, whether there was a point to the presidential presser. In our regular News Meeting feature, we asked readers what the value was of President Obama’s primetime pressers, and indeed, of Gibbs’s afternoon jousts with the press. (And let’s face it, joust is being generous—these things are about as unscripted and eventful as a Saturday Hills marathon.) Reader David Blythe wrote of two limitations diminishing the value of the presser: “The first is the administration’s ability to structure the proceeding to accommodate the message. The second is journalistic compliance and timidity.” Our own Megan Garber disagreed: “Pageantry and performance aren’t always a bad thing (cf Campaign 2008, Campaign 1960, Campaign 1789, etc.); and press conferences—political theater in the guise of, you know, A Face-off between the President and Intrepid Denizens of the Fourth Estate—are, to my mind, valuable. Not just because of the (limited) intellectual exchange they involve—even when no news is broken, the way the White House chooses to frame its answers alone is telling and, occasionally, news in its own right—but also because of their entertainment value itself.”

Who gets (and controls) the “First Crack”? Remember back in October of this year when @PressSec Gibbs tweeted about his “first crack” initiative? (What happened to that?) It gave the public the opportunity to ask Gibbs the first question at a press briefing by tweeting a question at Gibbs with the hashtag #1; he would then answer it on video before the briefing. Nice open government initiative, right? Clint Hendler had his own first, second, and third questions for Gibbs. And then a word or two of his own.

Gibbs and his staff will choose the question they are answering from a buffet of those offered up by hashtag, and can pick to match their preferred message of the day. They will have time to script their response. And the questioner will have no opportunity for follow-up.

And while there is of course a difference between a question before a briefing and the first question at a briefing, the Gibbs tweet seems to set up this P.R. exercise as part of the briefing process.

It’s not a bad thing. But it’s definitely not the same thing.

Who’s Undercutting Obama? Former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston slammed the press office in an early review from way back in January 2009. He was having trouble trying to reach Gibbs’s team for comment; what he found was incompetence. “I have called 202-456-2580, the main number for the White House press office, going back to the Nixon administration,” wrote Johnston. “Never has anyone in the press office declined to spell his name, give his job title, or hung up, even after the kind of aggressive exchanges that used to be common between journalists and flacks—and between journalists and high government officials, for that matter.” A White House’s dealing with journalists, “sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.” By the end of the piece, Johnston reports, “I’m still waiting for Gibbs, or someone with authority to speak on the record, to call me back for that interview I wanted to start with—and now for a second one about how the White House press office operates. You can reach me at 585-230-0558.”

Gibbs Gaffes Again, Tradition Continues Lefty readers may recall last August’s famous Gibbs gaffe, when the press secretary spoke of a “professional” left that needed to be “drug tested” for comparing the president to his predecessor. “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president,” he opined. Ouch. In honor of that gaffe—not Gibbs’s first, not his last—I compiled a video package of press secretary gaffe’s past. The list included another Gibbs gem: responding to a question about Dick Cheney, Gibbs retorted, “Well, I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.”

Kicking Gibbs Around Gibbs showed up many a time in our more lighthearted Kicker blog. Highlights reel: Megan Garber noting Gibbs’s favorite evasive maneuver; my own word-cloud tribute to his Twitter account; Liz Cox Barrett on Gibbs’s funny side, and Politico’s noting of it; Alexandra Fenwick’s note on Gibbs’s Palin-hand-memo standup routine; and Barrett on a mini spat between press corps vet Helen Thomas and then newbie Gibbs—“you people” indeed.

We end with a video tribute to the outgoing press-herder, courtesy of CNN. Farewell, Mr. Gibbs, and we look forward to our next foil.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,