The stature of some press secretaries grows the longer they are away from the podium in the James S. Brady briefing room at the White House. Others fade quickly. Brady himself is known more for his role in fighting for gun control than he is for his time as Ronald Reagan’s spokesman. His tragic wounding and subsequent disability dwarf whatever he said in his press briefings.
Jerry terHorst, who resigned after only a month in the job because his boss, Gerry Ford, lied to him, was a hero to the press for about as long as he had been press secretary. He ended up working for the Ford Motor Company.
Bill Clinton’s second press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, had a rough ride in the job and a modest career in journalism since then.
Among the revered are Marlin Fitzwater, who served George H.W. Bush; Jody Powell, who was Jimmy Carter’s press secretary and has just died of a heart attack; and Mike McCurry of the Clinton administration. George W. Bush burned through two press secretaries before he tapped the beloved Tony Snow and the admired Dana Perino.
Barack Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, gets mixed reviews. He said that he talked to Powell and others about the job, but he executes it in his own eccentric way. This has some of the White House press corps up in arms and others giving him a passing grade. It is a classic case of where you sit.
The irritation begins with time-keeping. For Gibbs, but not Obama, nothing seems to go on time. The principal press briefing–the one seen on C-SPAN–is scheduled the night before, and reporters are e-mailed this along with the president’s schedule for the next day. Sometimes, this schedule arrives after 8 p.m., making the planning of the next day difficult.
That is only the beginning of the time problem. Invariably, the briefing time slips the next day. Updates delay the beginning of the briefing by one or more hours. But that is not final: Gibbs may make his entrance 20 or more minutes late and without apology.
Then the fault lines within the press corps really open up. They have to do with who gets to ask questions and who is shunned—and this, in turn, has to do with who has assigned seats and sits in the first two rows.
There is ugliness here. Here is class warfare by employment, and here is an unwitting exposure of the White House’s hand.
Clearly, television counts more than print–even dominant print outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Likewise, it is revealed in Gibbs’ world that the Associated Press trounces Reuters and Bloomberg. The foreign press gets very short schrift.
Gibbs’ clear favorites are the television networks and a new crop of correspondents he got to know on the campaign trail. Correspondents like Chuck Todd of NBC are often engaged in a colloquium to which the three dozen or more other correspondents are just spectators.
If you are not one of the favored, you sit in one of the back rows with your hand in the air for favor of recognition to ask a question. It does not happen often.
There is much less criticism of the substance of Gibbs’ answers than there is with his tardiness and favoritism. Gibbs will contentiously argue a point with a reporter, but he also will refreshingly admit when he does not have the answer. Also he does not indulge in dead-end referrals, such as “I refer you to the CIA,” or “I refer you to the vice president’s office.” George W. Bush’s first two press secretaries, Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, did this with exasperating frequency. Snow turned away wrath with philosophy and Perino handled heckling press with humor and efficiency.
Unfortunately, Gibbs’ fascination with a small number of TV reporters has carried over to the full-blown press conferences. The chosen few are again the chosen few. The rest of us are right there with the plotted plants: to be seen but not heard.