As Gibbs leaves, his White House press office staff faces uncertain future

President Barack Obama made a rare appearance in the White House briefing room Friday to mark his longtime aide Robert Gibbs' last day at the White House. (Feb. 11)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 11:46 PM

A few minutes after he announced his resignation at a Jan. 5 White House press briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs shrugged off a question about whether publicizing his departure without naming a successor would make the search more "fishbowl-like."

Noting that White House staff rearrangements seldom lack for attention from reporters, Gibbs joked that he didn't remember such searches ever being "un-fishbowl-like."

The reporters in attendance chuckled knowingly, but for the half-dozen of Gibbs's press operatives crammed into the backstage area known as the "lower press," the joke fell flat.

The search for the successor to Gibbs, who completed his last day on the job Friday, introduced some unusual tension into the tight quarters occupied by the lower press staff. Suddenly, staffers who had bonded during the no-drama Obama campaign became competitors. The White House reporters who have long turned to the lower press for information began to cover them as candidates and privately wondered whether the aggressive, boys' club culture of the office would work for or against them.

In the end, all the internal politicking was for naught. A relative outsider, Jay Carney, got the gig. But when he starts as spokesman for the leader of the free world on Monday, he also starts as head of an office that has been altered by its time in the public eye. Some of the key staff in the lower press, including deputy press secretary Bill Burton, are mulling departure. The entire White House communications apparatus is undergoing an overhaul.

The five press assistants and two deputy press secretaries in the lower press are some of the hardest-working people in the administration. Uniquely empowered to speak for the administration on a broad swath of policy issues - a critical mission in light of Gibbs's reputation for disappearing on deadline - the assistants play a crucial role in shaping coverage of the administration. They have access to top administration staffers, coordinate with policymakers in the Cabinet and serve as the administration's first line of defense when it comes to dealing with the news media. If the press secretary is the face of the administration, the operatives in the lower press serve as its eyes and ears.

At his farewell briefing Friday afternoon, Gibbs, visibly moved, said, "I wouldn't have made it through it without them."

Like a cramped kitchen

The Lower Press Office is located behind a sliding door stage right of the famous podium. Reporters, who may enter the area freely, first encounter a coat rack and a narrow wall covered in printouts of national front pages. Two assistants, seated with the closeness of the Muppets' Statler and Waldorf, sit to the right of the door, under a television tuned to MSNBC. With its cream-colored walls and hanging cabinets, the room resembles a cramped kitchen. The area is so small that one of the assistant press secretaries, Reid Cherlin, 29, who specializes in health care and judicial issues, sits in another room - called the Upper Press Office - with the assistants to Gibbs and communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "It's light and airy" by comparison, Cherlin said.

Downstairs in the Lower Press Office, Amy Brundage, 29, the sole female assistant press secretary, fields inquiries about the budget. ("Do you want to talk about the rollout?") To her right along a long desk, across from a printer, Clark Stevens, 30, speaks in hushed tones about energy policy. ("Hey, so, off the record?") Behind him, Tommy Vietor, 30, who now carries the title National Security Council spokesman, occupies a small office - awarded by lottery - and talks about Egypt into a Time-Life operators-standing-by headphone. In a lone desk behind a space heater, Nick Shapiro, 30, sits opposite Clark and answers questions about homeland security. ("The radiation was negligible," he said. "Actually less than flying on an airplane.") The remaining two adjacent offices along the wall belong to the two deputy press secretaries, Bill Burton and Josh Earnest.

And that's where life in the lower press gets complicated.

Burton was considered a finalist to succeed Gibbs as press secretary. The 33-year-old native of Buffalo, who prepared Gibbs for briefings and then assiduously took notes as he performed, had long been seen as being groomed for the job. On Feb. 3, 2010, Burton gave his first briefing and reporters jokingly yelled, "Coup!" The next day, Gibbs returned to chants of "We want Bill!" According to officials in the White House with knowledge of the Burton/Gibbs dynamic, the press secretary grew increasingly distant toward his deputy after that.

Gibbs dismissed any notion that he undercut Burton ("He was hired by me to brief when I couldn't or didn't," Gibbs wrote in an e-mail), and Pfeiffer said that Gibbs acted as an adviser, not an advocate, during the search process. People with knowledge of Burton's situation say that now is a natural time for him to seek opportunities outside the White House, which he is seriously considering. On Thursday, Burton was reportedly approached about seeking the job of former New York representative Chris Lee (R), who resigned in a shirtless-photo scandal.

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