Much has been written on the departure of former White House Press Spokesman Robert Gibbs on February 11. In private, he was a fine Southern gentleman. We all wish him success and prosperity on the lecture circuit. His departure ceremony was civilized. True to form, it was several hours later than announced. But he had a good excuse -- President Mubarak finally resigned in Egypt, sending the entire White House (and much of the world) scrambling. First, President Obama made a statement about Egypt at 3:00 pm. It was a "pooled" statement, and he answered no questions. About a half an hour later, the president, Robert Gibbs, and most of the White House press staff flocked to the overcrowded press room. It was standing room only, and I could not count the number of cameras which lined the walls. But some of the regular reporters were not there because it was late, and they were under deadline. This enabled me to take a seat in the second row, which required Gibbs to grant me a question. Usually I do not have an assigned seat, despite 43 years covering the White House. In general, I scramble for a seat, like most of the media pack. I also carry my own portable chair, which I set up along the side.
When my turn came, I asked Gibbs questions on behalf of many of the rest of us. I mangled my question, which caused a lot of friendly banter, but that is fine. Basically, I wanted to know if he would recommend to incoming Press Secretary Jay Carney that he continue the pattern of allowing the big-name reporters in the front two rows endless amounts of questions, while the rest of the press corps are lucky to get one. I also asked if he would follow the pattern of advising the president to chose from a prearranged list of questioners (a habit which I believe began in the last Bush administration). Gibbs ducked the question about the seating arrangement, but defended the list practice as restoring order to the press room. Finally, I asked whether the present press staff would stay on, which gave him the chance to lavish them with praise. Many have been helpful and kind to us, and I personally appreciate them too.
Some were surprised I had the temerity to ask these questions on Robert Gibbs' last day, but I felt I had the right to speak up after 43 years on the job. An excellent press secretary is democratic to all. He or she gives all an equal right to ask questions, and receive answers. They should know many in the back rows have millions of viewers, listeners, or readers. Many also have long institutional memories. The best press secretaries also explain and flesh out policies with passion; they do not endlessly repeat prepared position papers. They allow for electricity and spontaneity . They also have humor and personality, as did Mike McCurry, Marlin Fitzwater, Tony Snow, and others. And they start the briefings at the announced time -- reporters have time constraints too.
Robert Gibbs is a hard working, nice man. He deserves the best. But now it is time to say "out with the old, in with the new."