Even Robert Gibbs’ final day of briefing the White House press corps had its bumps and unusual moments. The press secretary finally came out at 3:30 p.m. yesterday, more than three hours past the original time for which the briefing was scheduled.
The President himself made a cameo appearance at its opening. He recalled his notable keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he borrowed a tie from the man who first became his spokesman when he was then-state Sen. Barack Obama, just starting a run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois the same year. Nearly seven years later, Obama returned the tie to Gibbs, framed and with photos from their first brush with national fame at the convention in Boston.
For the most part, reporters put aside any frustration with what many felt was Gibbs’ record of weaving and bobbing on their questions. Some made mention of the President’s spokesman’s notorious habit of saying, “Let me get back to you on that” and not doing so. But no hard feelings were evinced. As Gibbs told journalists that his own week ahead will include taking son Ethan to school and riding his bicycle in the neighborhood, reporters offered words of encouragement.
But it was not an occasion for celebration or toasts, either. Gibbs was turning over the world’s best-known podium to incoming Press Secretary Jay Carney on the same day that the White House and the world learned that Egypt’s embattled President Hosni Mubarak was stepping down.
What emerged most clearly from Gibbs’ farewell performance was a clear sign from the administration that they would not mind if what has happened to Mubarak in Egypt would now happen to the strong-arm Islamic regime in Iran.
Gibbs, of course, did not say that—only that he would like to see “the ability of the people of Iran” to voice their opinions.
The outgoing press secretary brought up the topic of Iran early in the briefing, saying it was “remarkable to watch how Iran was dealing with [the Egyptian crisis] a week ago” when the developments of the uprising in the streets of Cairo were first reported. Gibbs noted that the Tehran government began “arresting people, turning out the Internet, [and blocking] the right of peaceful assembly.”
From Iran came, he said, “empty talk about Egypt.”
Talk of whether the tide of popular rage that rolled through Egypt and swept out Mubarak could spread to Iran came up repeatedly at yesterday’s session. Gibbs said, “There is quite a contrast between Egypt and the way Iran is.” In an obvious reference to the the Islamic rulers who are trying to crack down on dissidents, the press secretary said, “We don’t have to fear democracy.”
“They’re scared,” Gibbs later said in characterizing Iran’s reaction to what is happening in Egypt.
So Robert Gibbs has left the briefing room. This was not an emotional day, and there was not the applause that swelled in the room at the final briefing of the much-loved (and missed) Tony Snow on the day he relinquished the podium.
What is most memorable about the day was not so much what was said about Gibbs, but that his swan song might have been a rallying cry to dissidents in Iran.