After Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Tuesday, his White House press secretary will be Robert Gibbs – who is usually genial but sometimes belligerent. How will Gibbs do in this important job? Media commentary Paul Janensch gives us his take.
Robert Gibbs will do fine if he is genial in public and belligerent only in private. Gibbs will become familiar to all of us through the daily briefings of the White House press corps – at which television cameras have been allowed since Mike McCurry was Bill Clinton’s press secretary. Sometimes we will see the briefings “live.” More often we will see video clips later on TV newscasts. I think that even members of the public who don’t particularly like the news media would be uncomfortable watching the press secretary berating a reporter – which Gibbs did from time to time during the Obama campaign. He once barred a New York Post reporter from the campaign plane, and for a while limited Newsweek’s access to the candidate. In both cases, Gibbs felt what they had written about Obama was unfair.
Gibbs, 37, a native of Alabama, has never been a journalist, but he has considerable experience as a spokesman for Democratic candidates. He started working for Obama in 2004 and became one of his closest advisors -- and not just on dealing with the press but also on politics and policies. He was often the last person to speak to Obama before the candidate gave a speech or sat down for an interview. One advisor to Obama told The Washington Post: “We call him (meaning Gibbs) the Barack Whisperer. He completely understands his thinking and knows how Barack wants to come across.” A White House correspondent, told the Post that Gibbs “is not just a press flunky who gets handed a piece of paper with talking points.” The public saw Gibbs’s confrontational side when he got into a growling match with Sean Hannity. The Fox News host wanted to talk about Vietnam-era radical William Ayers, but Gibbs kept asking Hannity if he was an anti-Semite – a reference to a Hannity program built around an Obama critic known for his ravings against Jews. You can still see the Gibbs vs. Hannity bout on YouTube.
It’s one thing to go toe-to-toe with an interrogator on camera when you’re a campaign spokesman. It’s something else to do it when you’re the White House press secretary. It sure doesn’t fit the cool Obama style. Of course, it’s unlikely that Sean Hannity will ever be a member of the White House press corps.
Media commentator Paul Janensch is a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.