Robert Gibbs' very last press conference and White House press secretary is Friday afternoon. The president will miss him. The press? Not so much.
Gibbs has been by Obama's side since his 2004 Senate campaign. He and David Axelrod, who's also headed back to Chicago to work on the president's reelection campaign, have served as Obama's "political compass" for years. Gibbs was the rare press secretary to have a major influence on policy, and that role meant he often ignored reporters' questions to deal with his real work. He's had a difficult relationship with the press ever since the warm fuzzies wore off after the 2008 election.
Some highlights of Gibbs' tenure:
One of Gibbs' most brazen stunts happened in June of 2008, John McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune, after the Democratic primary. Obama's campaign plane left Washington full of reporters. But Obama wasn't on board--he was secretly meeting with Hillary Clinton. Gibbs only revealed the candidate's absence upon touchdown in Chicago.
Mocking the Professional Left:
Last summer, Gibbs railed against dissatisfied liberals who didn't think Obama accomplished enough in his first years. "I hear these people saying [Obama’s] like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested... I mean, it’s crazy." The "professional left," Gibbs told The Hill's Sam Youngman, "will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality. ... They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president."
He later apologized, telling Marc Ambinder, "I watch too much cable, I admit... Day after day it gets frustrating. Yesterday I watched as someone called legislation to prevent teacher layoffs a bailout--but I know that's not a view held by many, nor were the views I was frustrated about."
Mocking Sarah Palin:
A year ago, Gibbs took a shot at Sarah Palin--who famously scribbled her talking points on her hand--by greeting the press with this written on his palm: "eggs, milk, bread, hope and change."
Mocking Rick Santelli:
Perhaps Gibbs' greatest error was ignoring not preening reporters, but the anger that fueled the Tea Party, Slate's Dave Weigel writes. Gibbs responded flippantly to Rick Santelli's CBNC rant about bailing out people who bought homes they couldn't afford. Gibbs said Santelli was free to come on down to the White House and read Obama's plan. "I’d be more than happy to have him come here to read it. I’d be happy to buy him a cup of coffee--decaf," Gibbs said. Weigel says, "In the rearview mirror, the Democratic/White House/liberal activist decision to ridicule the conservative backlash to Obama, and to elevate its "craziest" members, looks like an historic blunder."
Standing Up for the Press in India:
Staffers for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initially agreed to let eight American reporters into the press pool when Obama visited in November, but then decided only five would be allowed in. Gibbs was outraged and began yelling that he would pull Obama from the meeting unless all eight could attend. Gibbs then jammed his foot in a door Indian security officers were trying to close, warning them not to break his foot. Finally, they relented. As Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm observes, Gibbs got his boss the nice photo op he needed just days after bruising midterm elections.
But Mostly Just Being a Pain With Reporters:
Just after Obama was elected in 2008, Politico's Anne Schroeder Mullins gushed that he and Axelrod were "The new It guys." The New York Times' Mark Leibovitch marveled at how brazenly Gibbs had ignored the Washington press corps, never even visiting with the editorial board of The Washington Post, and even ignored Mark Halperin's daily link dump. Because reporters mostly hate each other, because they are often jerks, this was taken as a sign of authenticity and clear-headedness. For a little while.
The love slowly began to wear off. In May of 2009, Politico reported that that there had been more than 10 instances of laughter--as documented by the official transcript--per day in Gibbs' briefings, for an average of 179 laughs a month. Six months later, the monthly average had been cut in half, to 89.
Robert Draper wrote in November that "Gibbs's casual contempt for journalists seems to be one of those unpleasant facts of life the White House media have come to expect. In Prague earlier this year, Gibbs told the traveling press to meet him for a goodwill dinner, then never showed up--and never bothered to respond to their where-are-you messages. ... The press corps has become so accustomed to this behavior that they barely seemed to notice when the press secretary finished off a recent briefing by saying with a straight face, 'I'll do one more, and then I'll go back to work.'"
Upon hearing that Gibbs would be departing, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote that Gibbs was "surpassed only by Ari Fleischer as the most unpopular press secretary of recent decades. On the podium, Gibbs often appeared to be attempting a revival of Mad magazine's 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.' Asked last week about the spread of Egypt's unrest, the spokesman replied that to answer 'would be to dip my toe into the pool of generalization, which I'm certainly not going to do.'"
That complaint underscores Alex Pareene's assessment of Gibbs--two years ago--that he hates the press, "just like a Republican." He explained, "the sole job of the White House Press Secretary is actually just to be a punching bag for grandstanding pricks. Senior White House correspondents' job is to get really kickass questions on the air on your evening news. So on that front, Gibbs is doing fine. Because good journalism is about asking 'tough questions' of official spokespeople, especially questions that you know you won't get an answer to..."