Robert Gibbs, unplugged, lets loose

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 3:23 PM

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday morning gave the best performance that nobody will ever see.

Actually, his performance was good precisely because nobody will see it, at least nobody beyond the few dozen who were in the room. Gibbs ordered the cameras off for a blissful half hour, and the result was a throwback to the good old days when reporters asked serious questions and the president's press secretary actually answered some of them.

The morning's Web and cable chatter was all about the rumor, started by Bob Woodward in a CNN appearance, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might replace Vice President Joe Biden as President Obama's 2012 running mate. There was also continuing buzz about whether Gibbs would leave to run the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

But with the cameras off, Gibbs fielded more than 30 questions, mostly on Afghanistan and Pakistan, before the two topics even came up. And when they did, Gibbs, usually defensive, was playful.

Politico's Glenn Thrush asked if Gibbs was ruling out the possibility of going to the DNC. "I haven't had conversations in this building or outside this building about what the future holds," he said.

What about e-mails?

"I have to broaden it out to all level and manner of audible or electronic communication," Gibbs said amid laughter.

"Notes wrapped around bricks?"

"No -- nothing like that," Gibbs insisted.

"In the same spirit," asked CBS News's Mark Knoller, "what do you make of all this chatter that President Obama might choose Secretary Clinton as a running mate?"

"I'm surprised it took us that long" to get to that question, Gibbs remarked. He said that the rumor is "just absolutely not true," and that his colleague David Axelrod dismissed the rumor in terms that "we can't repeat on a family program."

"You're not on TV, Robert," somebody reminded him.

When another reporter asked about the rumor that Clinton would become defense secretary, Gibbs made the sort of joke he probably wouldn't risk on camera. "I think she's going to the DNC," he said.

The Gibbs unplugged session was an experiment at the White House, one likely to continue because of Wednesday's results. The absence of cameras undoubtedly made for a more civilized and substantive affair -- a reality Supreme Court justices may wish to consider as they decide whether to televise their own proceedings.

Usually, there's more posturing during a typical White House briefing than during a typical yoga class. The network correspondents try to ask the "gotcha" question that will make the evening news. The press secretary, trying his mightiest to avoid making a televised mistake, is uniformly uninformative.

Long ago, briefings were always off camera. That began to change during the Clinton administration, and now they're virtually all televised. Into the Bush years, press secretaries tried to continue the tradition an off-camera "gaggle," an informal briefing, but the Obama administration dispensed with that custom.

Gibbs walked into the darkened briefing room in his shirt sleeves, put his water bottle down and stood to the side of the lectern, as if he might stroll the aisles while talking. He leaned his left elbow casually on the lectern and put his right hand on his hip.

"We'll try something a little different today," he proposed.

Reporters gave suggestions: "Wander around, lavalier mic? . . . Side of the podium? . . . Gibbs after dark?"

But this was no night club. Ben Feller of the Associated Press asked about reconciliation talks with the Taliban's Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. CBS's Bill Plante asked about a White House report critical of Pakistan's handling of al-Qaeda. The Post's Scott Wilson got the third question (a place in the order usually dominated by the TV correspondents) and asked about Obama's teleconferences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. After that, a reporter in the third-to-last row got a rare chance to ask a question.

Without the TV correspondents dominating the proceedings, there was even time to hear from the British journalist who wanted to know about Gibbs's statement that Obama is "quite pleased" with the work Clinton is doing. "I take it you mean that in the American sense of 'very pleased.' As you know, in British English that is a very qualified assessment of 'reasonably pleased.'"

"I'm serious," the Briton persisted as others laughed. "If I were to quote you, 'quite pleased,' it is highly qualified.

"Terribly pleased?" suggested ABC News's Jake Tapper.

"Somebody should -- somebody -- somebody should record this moment as the moment that I became speechless," Gibbs replied. "And cc my dad."

If only the cameras were running.

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