By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
By 1998, Gibbs was the campaign spokesman for Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and two years later for the successful Senate campaign of Michigan's Debbie Stabenow. It was in that role that Gibbs caught the eye of Jim Jordan, who hired him for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"He's one of the funniest guys I've ever known, which has really been a bonding point with Obama," Jordan says. "They love the game." Gibbs has "a strong personality," and "all the skills of a good flack. He knew how to move a negative story."
When Jordan was running John Kerry's presidential campaign, he brought Gibbs along, but the spokesman quit in protest when Jordan was dumped in the fall of 2003. Gibbs drew flak when he joined a group called Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values, which aired a commercial using a picture of Osama bin Laden in attacking a Kerry presidential rival, Howard Dean, for his lack of foreign policy experience. Gibbs said the group was independent and was trying to raise important issues.
After a period of unemployment, Gibbs got a call from longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod, inviting him to join the Democrat's 2004 Senate campaign. Gibbs knew little about the Illinois lawmaker, but at their initial meeting, he says, "I found him remarkably easy to talk to."
When sexual allegations about Obama's Republican rival, Jack Ryan, became public, Gibbs urged Obama to steer clear of the controversy and not to return reporters' calls, according to the book "Obama: From Promise to Power." Ryan soon dropped out.
After two years as Obama's Senate spokesman, Gibbs was the natural choice to be communications director of the fledgling presidential bid. In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, CBS's Reynolds says, Gibbs would walk up and ask if he needed anything.
"He became less and less helpful as Obama got more and more successful," Reynolds says. "His stature became more elevated than just schmoozing the press. He became a strategist, an insider. The more he knew about what was going on, the less he was willing to spill the beans."
Gibbs says there is a natural tension -- especially on campaigns marked by "sleeplessness and over-caffeinated interactions" -- between the media's demand for access and the strategists' insistence on driving a message. As a campaign strategist, "you're putting forth a series of images and values," he says. "You want the country to understand who a particular person is, what they stand for and what makes them tick."
Several reporters say Gibbs shared extra tidbits with favored correspondents and froze out others who criticized Obama, refusing to return calls or e-mails for weeks. Shouting matches were not uncommon, say these reporters, who did not want to be quoted criticizing an official they have to deal with, and Gibbs sometimes went over their heads and complained to their bosses.
Last spring, when Newsweek ran a cover portraying Obama as the elitist "arugula" candidate, followed weeks later by a cover story in which editor Evan Thomas wrote Obama an open memo on dealing with race, the campaign suddenly stopped cooperating with the magazine's quadrennial book project, which requires behind-the-scenes access. Thomas had to fly to Detroit and try to assuage Gibbs during a campaign flight before access was restored.
"I thought the Obama campaign was overreacting to those two covers," Thomas says. "They thought we were overly concerned with race." In light of the election, "maybe they were right."
Journalistic resentment boiled over in June when reporters were trapped on the plane as it took off from Washington without Obama, with Gibbs saying only that the candidate had "scheduled some meetings." Not until the flight landed in Chicago did Gibbs acknowledge that Obama had been secretly huddling with his defeated rival, Hillary Clinton.
In September, Charles Hurt, the New York Post's Washington bureau chief, was barred from the campaign plane after writing in a column that Obama "simply doesn't care if we win or lose the war in Iraq." Hurt declined to be interviewed.
Gibbs calls the charge "as irresponsible a line as I've read in this country in years." As for the other incidents, he says Reynolds, in his CBS blog post about the campaign's shortcomings, "hurt the feelings" of his staff and made complaints that the newsman had not raised in person. Gibbs says he limited Newsweek's access for pushing what he regarded as a false narrative that Obama could not connect with working-class voters.
Gibbs's aggressive side was on public display last month when he went toe-to-toe with Sean Hannity, castigating the Fox News host for building a program around an activist who accused Obama of having trained years ago for "a radical overthrow of the government." Over Hannity's objections, Gibbs read a list of comments by the activist, Andy Martin, that included once calling a judge a "slimy Jew."
"I find those comments despicable," Hannity said.
"But you put him on your show," Gibbs shot back. Fox executives later admitted that the booking had been a mistake.
Gibbs says he was trying to hammer home that it was "completely unacceptable" to give Martin a platform. But, he allows, "it was probably more fun than it should have been."
The incident provided a revealing glimpse of Gibbs's style. "I love dealing with reporters," he says. "Anybody who does this has to like a little of the back-and-forth."