Gibbs and Gizzi: A Reminiscence

As news spreads that Robert Gibbs is leaving as White House press secretary, one will hear a lot about the event of May of ’09 to which he and this correspondent will probably be linked forever.  

That was our White House briefing when my cellphone went off twice and the President’s top spokesman suddenly announced he was taking it from me.  Gibbs did just that, tossing the cellphone to an assistant and sending my colleagues at the James Brady Briefing Room into fits of laughter.  (Later in that session, when the cellphone of fellow correspondent Bill Plante also went off and Gibbs demanded it, the venerable CBS-TV correspondent said “no way” and walked out to take his call; a third rogue cellphone also rang, but its owner would not own up to it).

What Gibbs would later dub as the White House Briefing Room’s version of the bar scene in Star Wars developed a life of its own.  It was in headlines nationwide, reported on major networks, and, I am told, it was the third-most watched You Tube of that day (after those of singing sensation Susan Boyle and beauty queen Carrie Prejean).

“Did you get your cellphone back?” is what everyone asked, from my neighbors to the wife of a French diplomat shortly after we were introduced.

Having worked as a press secretary for Democrats from North Carolina’s Rep. Robert Etheridge to Barack Obama, Gibbs was the latest in a line of presidential spokesmen who were political operatives rather than journalists (Since 1976, only one White House press secretary, the late Tony Snow, had a background in journalism and not politics).

Not long after assuming the world’s most famous podium, Gibbs discovered that when a President seemingly adored by the world’s press veers from his presumed course, it can get ugly for his spokesman.  Hence, the tense briefing sessions in which the normally avuncular Gibbs became aggressive and sometimes cutting.  These free-wheeling sessions included the days when Obama moved away from backing the statist public option-based health care plan backed by Howard Dean and others to supporting the version that finally passed Congress.  

More recently, Gibbs “faced the music” after the President’s acceptance of extending tax cuts for the higher-income job creators (The “cellphone incident” actually provided Gibbs some respite from another tense session with the press, that time over the President changing his stand and deciding not to release interrogation photos from the Abu Graib camp that were so sought by the ACLU).

“He was garrulous without being informative,” is how my colleague Llewellyn King of White House Chronicle characterized Gibbs’ style at briefings, summarizing the not-so-private view of reporters that the press secretary could talk at length but never gave us much in the way of hard news.

But no one ever believed Gibbs was in danger of being forced from his job.  Having started handling Obama’s press work when the young Illinois legislator declared for the U.S. Senate back in ’04, Gibbs was cut from the same mold as long-ago press secretaries as Steve Early for F.D.R., Pierre Salinger for John Kennedy, and Jody Powell for Jimmy Carter—veterans of past campaigns with the boss and trusted advisors.  It is fitting that Gibbs, the first press secretary to also hold the rank of White House counselor, now becomes full-time advisor and factotum for his boss.  

For my part, I have no complaints about Robert Gibbs.  Where some HUMAN EVENTS readers and other conservatives feared he would isolate me to the briefing room’s Siberia, Gibbs put their fears to rest.  He treated me like any other reporter, calling on me at perhaps 80% of the sessions, and answering my questions (and, at the last two two briefings, finally getting around to calling me “John” instead of “sir.”).  

When my editors were anxious to get an answer as to whether the President had donated advances for writing a book to charities, Gibbs (who was in Cleveland) promptly e-mailed me with an explanation (something he did not often do, but somehow guessed was important to me).

And, our occasional heated exchanges notwithstanding, Gibbs was unfailingly courteous to my friends and family members when I brought them to the White House.  At the recent Christmas Party, my sister-in-law Barbara Kusisto wanted a picture with Gibbs and he happily complied, asking me: “Have you taken her for to meet the President yet?”  

For these things, I say my parting “Thank you, Robert.”

And, oh yes: he did return my cellphone.