A Spokesman So Close, He's the 'Barack Whisperer'
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
When a CBS correspondent reported last month that Barack Obama's campaign had a malodorous airplane and a dismissive attitude toward the media, Robert Gibbs, the candidate's top spokesman, was not pleased.
"Robert wrote a rather tendentious note to me," Dean Reynolds says. "He would get in your face, not in a very heated way, but he would question your stories."
Gibbs, who transition officials say is in line to become White House press secretary, can be funny, gossipy and an invaluable source of information about his boss, journalists say. He also monitors coverage intensively, pushing back against the smallest blog post he considers inaccurate.
"This is not someone who stays above the fray," Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe says. "His manner allows him to do tough stuff in a softer way. He could deliver a harsh message, but do it with a little sense of humor, so you'd feel punched in the stomach but not in the face."
Asked about complaints that he retaliated against reporters who were deemed unfair, Gibbs invokes the pressure of the campaign. "In hindsight, there are discussions I had in the heat of the moment that if I had to do over again, you would do differently," he says. "I don't doubt there's countless episodes you would go back and do over again. I think you do better when you treat people with respect. There were a couple of times that I flew off the handle."
Now the sparring will take place in the glare of televised briefings. After a career spent working for Democratic candidates and lawmakers, the 37-year-old Alabama native is about to become the public face of the Obama administration.
While he can be combative in private, Gibbs is affable and smooth-talking on camera, often deflecting uncomfortable questions with a quip. Colleagues say Gibbs channels the president-elect in a way that goes beyond their shared passion for college football. Obama had an initial tendency to overanswer questions, but Gibbs has taught him how to pivot back to his scripted point.
"He's the last person Barack talks to when he's thinking about how to handle reporters' questions," says Linda Douglass, a campaign spokeswoman. "We call him the Barack Whisperer. He completely understands his thinking and knows how Barack wants to come across."
That quality was not lost on journalists covering the highly disciplined campaign. "A huge asset that Robert has is that he's in the room with the president-elect," says Jake Tapper, ABC's senior White House correspondent. "He has his trust and his ear. He's not just a press flunky who gets handed a piece of paper with talking points."
Gibbs lives in Alexandria with his wife, Mary Catherine, a lawyer, and their 5-year-old son, Ethan. He has spent little time at home since hitting the campaign trail, but is grateful that his son has a relationship with Obama, who was photographed last month giving Ethan a fist-bump at Dulles airport.
The son of two Auburn University librarians, Gibbs got his first exposure to politics when his mother took him to voter registration drives. A political science major at North Carolina State University, Gibbs was also a goalie for the Wolfpack soccer team, though he admits that his playing time amounted to less than 45 minutes.
In 1991, while still a college student, Gibbs landed an internship with an Alabama congressman, Glen Browder, and later joined his staff. "Robert was good at talking," Browder says. "We always kidded that he'd end up with his own TV or radio talk show, but he was also substantive."