In India, Gibbs risks life (well, limb anyway) for White House press corps

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, literally gets a foot in the door for the press corps trying to cover President Obama's visit to India.

Jason Reed/Reuters
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (r.) argues with an official from the Indian Prime Minister's office after the travelling White House press pool were initially refused entry to the bilateral meeting between President Obama and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, isn’t always the most popular guy in the briefing room. He can be obtuse, and at times exasperating, in the face of all those pesky reporters trying to get him to say something clear and quotable, maybe even honest.

But when the going gets tough, Gibbs is The Man. Consider what just happened in New Delhi: For reasons still unknown, Indian officials decided that only five of the eight reporters from the White House “pool” – a small group of reporters representing the larger US press corps – should be allowed in to a photo op before a bilateral meeting (or “bilat”) between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Enter Mr. Gibbs, who ripped off his dress shirt, revealing the big “S” on his undershirt, and started smashing heads. Well, not really. But we hear the situation did get heated, and Gibbs did behave like a Papa Grizzly on behalf of his charges.

According to the print pool reporter, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post, White House press aide “Katie Lillie and other US officials lobbied hard for the eight, but no luck until Gibbs announced loudly and persistently on steps of Hyderabad House that he would pull POTUS [Mr. Obama] out of bilat with PM Singh unless ‘the White House 8,’ as we've come to be known, were all allowed in.”

At one point, Wilson continues, “Gibbs literally had his foot lodged in the closing front door, asking if the Indian security officials pushing hard to shut it were going to break his foot. More angry words ensued, and after Gibbs convinced them, through high volume and repetition, that he was serious about pulling POTUS, we all made it inside, to hold with larger Indian press contingent, for start of extended bilat.”

The pool report continues: “Finally escorted into spray [photo op] at 11:55am. Delegations seated opposite each other along a long light-wood table, beneath a simple chandelier. POTUS and PM Singh sat across from each other at table's middle.

“No words spoken, just smiles. Pool escorted out a minute later.”

The report brought back fond memories of my own experience with aggressive officials from another populous Asian nation last December. I was the print pool reporter on Obama’s trip to the climate change summit in Copenhagen, and this time it was the Chinese who gave the US press pool a hard time – as in, keeping us out altogether from a photo op at a meeting between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Chinese reporters had pushed their way in, leaving us Americans stranded outside the room.

A video of the incident shows Chinese officials trying to keep us out, dismissing the pleas of a lower-level US press aide. Then – cue triumphal music – in jumps Gibbs. Amid crosstalk and general confusion, Gibbs is heard saying, "This is a joint meeting. My guys get in or we're leaving the meeting."

To view the video, click here.

We got in.

“Who knew [Gibbs] had the power to end a meeting between heads of state and government?” an NPR blogger later commented.

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