Sportsmen spend hours studying tapes of opposing teams or players. Presidential press secretaries, however, tend to prefer learning on the job. It is early, and scant on charity, to attack President Barack Obama’s man Robert Gibbs. But he has had a rocky start.
Gibbs seems to be unsure of his game in the White House press briefing room. The crush of journalists overwhelming the small room during his briefings is not there to lead a cheering session for the president. Nor are they an operatic claque come to embarrass the tenor. They want to find out what is going on and tell their viewers, listeners and readers all about it as fast as their skill and electrons can carry it.
Gibbs must know that the White House press corps takes no prisoners. But in these early days of the Obama administration, he still seems to be in campaign form—even treating reporters as though they are his friends, and by extension sympathetic to the president.
This is an easy mistake to make, and Gibbs is not the first to make it. On the campaign trail, there is a practical necessity for reporters to be cordial, or downright cozy, with the campaign staff. With the election, any campaign bonhomie evaporates and some remembered slights are exposed.
Gibbs, one hopes, is too smart to believe the right-wing ranters bark that the media is “in the tank” with Obama. In fact, the political press fears plans to continue the arms-length strategy of his presidential campaign in the White House.
Four recent press secretaries set a good example of how to do the job. They are Marlin Fitzwater, George H.W. Bush’s press secretary; Clinton’s Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart; and George W. Bush’s Tony Snow and Dana Perino. All did the job with aplomb, defended their employer with skill, and tried hard to answer questions without attacking the questioner.
Poor press secretaries include Clinton’s Dee Dee Myers, and George W. Bush’s Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan. They did not appear to have the access to the president that is vital for the job, and often attacked the questioner by denigrating a question as “hypothetical.” Questioning often requires hypothesis. The press secretary who is not in the president’s confidence and his inner circle will fail with the press. He or she, not knowing the answer, will fall back on the hated evasion: “I refer you to . . .” This does not help someone on deadline.
Gibbs got into this dangerous territory early on. He refused to answer any questions about an unmanned aerial strike on terror suspects inside Pakistan. The question was obvious: Did the president authorize the strike and what were the policy implications going forward? The briefer clearly had not been briefed about something that would come up.
Then there was Gibbs’s problem with lobbyists. Gibbs appeared blindsided when asked why President Obama had signed an order limiting the role of lobbyists day ago and now was nominating Raytheon’s top lobbyist, William Lynn III, to be deputy secretary of defense. Gibbs tried to punt but could not connect with the ball.
No doubt many of Gibbs’s problems had to do with transition difficulties that included an incomplete press list, a total collapse of White House e-mail, and a staff which had never seen the White House press corps after its quarry.
Gibbs is not new to Washington, and has worked on Capitol Hill, but there is no preparation for carrying the message of the president to the world except by learning on the job. The press secretary has to learn that every gesture and gaffe will be dissected globally. Even the variety of his neckties has already drawn attention in, of all places, The Christian Science Monitor.