This week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that he’ll step down from his post. The New York Times' reporter Mark Leibovich says that Gibbs doesn’t leave behind a memorable legacy – and that that’s a pretty sure sign of his success.
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BOB GARFIELD: This week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that he'll step down from his post. Gibbs has worked for Barack Obama since his 2004 Senate run and was communications director for the 2008 presidential campaign. Back then, he was known for his acerbic style. The most memorable example was the back-and-forth with FOX News host Sean Hannity. After Hannity pressed Gibbs on Obama’s relationship to William Ayers, Gibbs replied that as long as Hannity was using the logic of guilt by association, it was probably worth mentioning the anti-Semite Hannity had hosted on his show the week before.
ROBERT GIBBS: You put him on your show -
SEAN HANNITY: I – we put Malik Shabbazz on the show.
ROBERT GIBBS: It’s the Hannity Show.
SEAN HANNITY: I put Khalid Mohammad on my show. I put –
ROBERT GIBBS: Why am I not to believe you’re an anti-Semitic.
SEAN HANNITY: Well, let me – let – here’s -
ROBERT GIBBS: Why am I not to believe that everybody who works for the network is anti-Semitic?
SEAN HANNITY: Here’s the answer.
BOB GARFIELD: But, says New York Times political reporter Mark Leibovich, once Gibbs started working in the White House, he took a much milder approach.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Gibbs has been not as combative as he was during the campaign. There were a few memorable things. I mean, there was an episode when he told Sam Youngman of The Hill that the White House was frustrated with what Gibbs called the “professional left,” the liberals in the Democratic Party who were never satisfied by any Obama administration agenda. He caught a lot of flak from, predictably, the left, and it’s unclear if that was a purpose pitch or not or whether he was freelancing. I mean -
BOB GARFIELD: Can I just interrupt you?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: For those of our listeners who are not baseball aficionados, a purpose pitch - is a pitch that is not only out of the strike zone but under the batter’s nose, with the intention of letting the batter back off of the plate, lest the pitcher put the next one in his ear. Correct?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yeah. The other one was when Gibbs responded to a question in which he said that, yes, in fact, it was possible that the Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives in the November elections.
ROBERT GIBBS: I think there is no doubt that there are a lot of seats that will be up, a lot of contested seats. I think - people are going to have a choice to make in the fall. But I, I think there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control. There’s no doubt about that.
MARK LEIBOVICH: And this was the summer, and he was stating an absolute fact that turned out to be correct, by events, and yet he was utterly lampooned. He was like, how dare Robert Gibbs suggest that the Democrats could lose the House of Representatives. And I thought that was a wonderful object lesson in the Michael Kinsley law of what a gaffe is in Washington, which is someone speaking honestly.
BOB GARFIELD: The highlight reel of Gibbs’ moments with the press is - it’s not a necessarily long one but to your way of thinking that’s kind of what press secretaries would like to compile, a short highlight reel, no?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Going back to baseball metaphors, in some ways the job of a modern press secretary is akin to that of a baseball umpire, which is if you’re not being noticed at all, you’re probably doing a pretty good job. And I think, for the most part, Robert Gibbs was well respected, certainly by the President, certainly by people at the White House, if not necessarily the press. And one of the tenets of respect in this game is not making any needless news beyond the daily message. And Robert Gibbs did not make a lot of news from the podium. I mean, he, he made news in that he could speak authoritatively for the President but not in that he would misspeak any more than, you know, what you would expect from someone in an age in which everything is immediately tweeted and blogged and, and so forth.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you something about that professional left remark.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that Gibbs may have observed that, but maybe deserves some of the blame? Was the dissatisfaction among that constituency partly the fault of Gibbs and the administration for not doing a better selling job?
MARK LEIBOVICH: Look, there has been a widespread criticism of this White House, which is that it has a, quote, “communications problem,” that this is an administration that has legitimately accomplished a great deal, they've passed some historic legislation, and yet, has not, for whatever reason, been successful in promoting the good points of these accomplishments in a way that would make the American people truly understand what’s gone on.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, they've been on the defensive from the get-go, no?
MARK LEIBOVICH: They have absolutely been on the defensive from the get-go. I think, to some degree, it’s unfair because, again, I don't think anyone has mastered the art of how to communicate in the environment that is today’s media. I think it’s telling that in the Press Secretary’s Office, in the closet, there is a flak jacket that has been passed down from every White House press secretary since Ron Nessen.
BOB GARFIELD: Nessen, that’s Gerald Ford’s press secretary.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Right, and only the acting press secretaries get to open the closet and see the flak jacket. And I think to some degree, you know, Robert Gibbs, in a very real sense, is on the front lines of the day-to-day battle of this media environment, in which there’s a lot of triviality and very, very short attention spans. And survival is probably the first job, and lack of embarrassment is probably the second job. And I think to some degree Robert Gibbs comes out of this with a career and future, and that’s probably, you know, at minimum, what you can hope for in a job that’s so fraught with peril.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, thanks very much.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Thanks, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: Mark Leibovich is a national political reporter for The New York Times.
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