On his last day as White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs was preceded to the podium by President Obama, whose friendship and confidence were Mr. Gibbs’s most important assets in one of the hardest jobs in Washington.
Mr. Obama, just back from making a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leaving office, quipped, “Obviously Gibbs’s departure is not the biggest one today.”
The president’s remarks began with the presentation of a pale-blue tie that Gibbs had loaned Obama when he addressed the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was a speech that gave Obama, then a candidate for the US Senate, a major political boost. A framed, handwritten note from the president said, “It and you helped me get started.”
The president then went on to commend Gibbs. “Robert has not only been an extraordinary press secretary, but he has been a great friend. And you could not ask for somebody better in the foxhole with you,” Obama said.
After five minutes of being lauded by his boss before a standing-room-only crowd, Gibbs launched into what he said was the Obama administration’s 250th briefing. Most of them have been done by Gibbs. Friday’s session – lasting some 69 minutes – was surely one of the longest.
After paying tribute to his staff, Gibbs said, “I will miss boring days like today at the White House.” During the 18-day Egyptian crisis, he noted, historic transformations had played out “each and every day.”
Being a witness to history – and helping shape policy – are among the biggest attractions of a post that Gibbs earlier in the week called “one of the most challenging jobs” in all of government. “We’re up here talking about a subject that can influence what happens 10 miles and 10,000 miles away,” he said.
That pressure to handle sensitive diplomatic issues was on display again Friday. Gibbs tweaked the government of Iran for blocking Internet access and “being scared of the will of the people.” And he sought to allay fears that the changes in Egypt would damage the United States or its allies. “I don’t think we have to fear democracy,” Gibbs said.
The press secretary’s job comes with the built-in tension of serving two masters – the president and the press. One wants to manage the flow and subject of the news; the other has an insatiable appetite for information, and the less packaged the better.
The tension in the relationship was on display at Gibbs’s final briefing: A New York Times correspondent wanted to know if, now that he had a more leisurely schedule, he would be better about returning phone calls and e-mails.
Reporters have complained that Gibbs was not always easy to reach.
When asked to comment on relations between the president and press, Gibbs ducked, saying he will soon be paid lots of money to answer that in the future. Politico reported Friday morning that Gibbs has signed with the Harry Walker Agency for paid speeches.
Several times during his last week as press secretary, reporters tried to get Gibbs to talk about his feelings and philosophy. At a briefing on Tuesday, he knocked down one such attempt, saying, “I don’t want to turn this into my fond farewell.... It’s the least favorite topic I have, which is me.”
One appeal of his new life, giving paid speeches and working on Obama’s reelection campaign, will be more time with his wife and son. As the final briefing drew to a close, Gibbs presented a mock “week ahead” – a ritual of Friday briefings in which the press secretary gives reporters an outline of what the president will be doing. “I’m going to give you my week ahead,” Gibbs said.
“On Monday, the former press secretary will travel with Ethan Gibbs to school. In the morning, he will catch some ‘SportsCenter’ [on ESPN].... In the afternoon, he is hoping for a nap before walking several hundred feet to the bus stop to greet Ethan.... Fortunately for me, I do not anticipate any further travel events for the remainder of the week.”
Gibbs’s spacious office in the West Wing of the White House was decorated with pictures drawn by his elementary-school-age son, whom he clearly adores.
Before leaving, Gibbs said the role of press secretary had been a “tremendous honor and a privilege.” Earlier in the week he said, “If you didn’t enjoy some element of this, you’d do it for about three days and you would turn in your [White House] pass and hope no one ever found you again.”