No Pity for Robert Gibbs and His 'Modest' Salary

By James Warren

Perhaps it was the long flight back from Hawaii. But President Obama's first full day back on the job suggested a slight case of tone deafness.

In bidding a sort-of farewell to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, he noted the "relatively modest pay" for which Gibbs has labored.

In fact, he earns $172,200 in a nation where the average family income hovers around $55,000, unemployment is high, record foreclosures persist and wages for most folks are at best stagnant.

But implicit in Gibbs' departure is the desire to slow down, recharge and earn a lot more money, especially after an arduous several years where he's been on call 24/7. He's hired an esteemed lawyer-agent, Robert Barnett, and is expected to hit the very lucrative speaking tour universe exploited by Washington insiders, including high-profile journalists.

It's a world in which a one-hour appearance can bring more than many Americans earn in a year, with the elite in the roughly $50,000 to $75,000 range. You offer a few benign inside anecdotes, take some questions and then get taken back by limo to the airport and a seat in first-class (assuming your deal doesn't include a private jet, as is the case for some journalists I know).

For sure, working at a high level in the capital brings contact with many who exit government to rake in huge sums. It's why so few high-ranking Senate and House members return home after retirement or defeat. There's just too much money to be made in Washington, often as a shameless influence peddler.

One was reminded of the larger reality in recent disclosures about former Clinton-era aide Lanny Davis assisting unseemly clients, including the strongman who runs Ivory Coast.

Amid all the attention, Davis withdrew from that $100,000-a-month gig. Imagine: $100,000 a month. But the point remains. You leave government and a significant amount of lucre, be it above-board or just plain filthy, is there to be had.

So it's natural to labor hard in government, see what goes on a few blocks away and feel entitled to same. People who came to town to change the world, and fight for the working guy, wind up thinking that a salary that would be a king's ransom to most of their constituents is chicken feed.

It's partly because they inevitably contrast themselves not with others in government, or cushier locales in the nonprofit world, but with the mightiest denizens of corporate America.

Should that be the basis of comparison, even stipulating that Gibbs is smarter than many outrageously-compensated corporate executives I have encountered and probably labored twice as hard in an inherently thankless, burnout task in which family life takes a back seat?

I've known elected officials, who had significant impact on laws and regulations touching the private sector, who bristled at the sums earned by the CEOs who lobbied them and whose firms they impacted, sometimes helped enormously. One congressional titan even pointed with blatant envy to the seven-figure salaries of network television anchors who cozzied up to him.

In some cases, I could appreciate the reflex. It's probably more pronounced amid the new private equity fortunes. Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, for one, made a tidy $16 million in that universe in just one year after leaving the Clinton administration.

So President Obama may have spoken a certain marketplace truth Monday. Unfortunately, it's a market known to too few Americans during historically tough times when a pink slip, or just the need for a root canal, can bring financial crisis to homes.

One can wish Gibbs the very, very best and concede the very positive words many have for him. But a former Chicago community organizer might have edited himself just a bit better in suggesting that a loyal lieutenant is a portrait in financial sacrifice.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/no-pity-for-robert-gibbs-and-his-modest-salary/68943/