January 5, 2011, From Inside the White House Press Room -- It was a bittersweet scene as we watched Robert Gibbs try to explain why he will soon leave the White House. To some of us, it seemed he may have been pushed to go at this time. His plans for the future have not yet gelled, although he hopes to consult and lecture. He will probably be a paid political advisor to the next Obama presidential campaign, but he said, surprisingly, this is expected to be his last political candidate. He did say -- half in jest -- he would be delighted to serve as Ambassador to Italy at some point.
His departure was no surprise, and had been discussed for months. Many in the press room were unhappy with his habit of giving preferential treatment to the "star" reporters in the first two or three rows. They could get an endless amount of question time, while the rest of the reporters only got crumbs, even if they too were very important and influential. Robert Gibbs reflected the style of his boss, President Obama, and gave long answers. Often there was no actual news in those answers, and very few quotes made it into print or onto the electronic media.
The surprise came in the timing of the announcement. This was the day the new Congress was sworn into session, and that was meant to dominate the news. Perhaps the White House thought the Gibbs announcement would be buried by the Congressional action. But it was not buried, and competed with the Capitol Hill story in many ways. At briefing time, the press room was packed, with a standing room only crowd. The briefing lasted over an hour and a half, with only brief questions pertaining to other domestic and international issues. Towards the end of the briefing, many reporters had to leave, but the room was still packed. Most of the White House Staff were also in the room, which does not usually happen. There was the hope President Obama would walk in, but he sent a written statement of praise instead.
Robert Gibbs is well liked on a personal basis. He is a true Southern gentleman, and should continue to have an excellent career. But, a Presidential Press Secretary has to have a special zip and dynamic. They cannot just read press releases; they have to flesh out an item, and give meaning to their answers. They have to be convincing, passionate, and fair to all. I have covered many press secretaries since the days of Lyndon Johnson -- some of them had that special flair, and others did not. Some were a true asset to their administrations; others were just a vacuum.
We all wish Robert Gibbs the best, and we are certain to see him often, in another life. Now, we anxiously await what comes next.