By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011;
On his final day as White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs was preceded at the podium in the briefing room by a distinguished warm-up act.
"Obviously, Gibbs's departure is not the biggest one today," said the president of the United States, who had minutes earlier delivered his statement bidding Hosni Mubarak good riddance. "Having said that, I thought I should come into the briefing room just to say a few words about my departing press secretary."
Uncharacteristically, Obama's voice appeared to catch as he called Gibbs "buddy" and hugged the longtime aide who "helped me get started." Obama returned, in a ceremonial frame, a Gibbs necktie he had borrowed - well, commandeered - for his famous speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
"You could not ask for somebody better in the foxhole with you," the president said of his spokesman.
In the foxhole. The president had, inadvertently perhaps, given an apt description of the past two years Gibbs spent in the trenches, fighting with the press. The White House press corps is weary of him, and Gibbs is exhausted.
At the end of his briefing, he read out his schedule for next week, the way he did for the president's official schedule each Friday: "On Monday, the former press secretary will travel with Ethan Gibbs to school. In the morning, he'll catch some SportsCenter and a bike ride if the weather holds up. In the afternoon, he's hoping for a nap. . . . I do not anticipate any further public events for the remainder of the week."
From the press corps, Friday's final briefing was not so much a fond farewell as a respectful leave-taking by a worthy adversary. Fortunately, reporters chose not to deliver, at least in public, the rum cake they talked about giving Gibbs (although they did give him a dog-themed card asking "Mutts you go?" from "every doggone one of us").
In between questions about Egypt, reporters offered some tender reminiscences and inside jokes. The Associated Press's Ben Feller, recalling Gibbs's turn in a dunking booth at a White House carnival, proposed that "if you do get homesick, please bring back the dunk tank at any time." NBC's Chuck Todd offered Gibbs a chance to talk about Auburn quarterback "Cam Newton's pro day yesterday."
"Before I ask my last question of you in this room, good luck. And I hope you get to spend a lot of time with Ethan," Jake Tapper said. The ABC newsman also jokingly asked about "all the questions you said you'd get back to us with an answer."
Gibbs replied that Jay Carney, his successor, "will have a transcript of all of those for you on Monday."
The press secretary was enjoying himself. He stood casually at the lectern, resting a loafer on the base. But the strains of the last two years occasionally broke through the pleasantries.
"Congratulations. I hope it was as good for you as it was for us," CBS's Chip Reid said dryly.
"He's trying to bait me," observed Gibbs.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times needled: "Now that you have more time on your hands, you'll be returning all our phone calls and e-mails, won't you?"
Gibbs's lips formed a straight line, and he arched his eyebrows.
Longtime White House reporter Connie Lawn of USA RadioNetwork used her final moments with Gibbs to complain about the lack of questions he takes from the back rows of the room. "I am moments away from not having to wade into the politics of many of the rows in this room," Gibbs said with satisfaction.
Gibbs was at times sentimental and moist-eyed; "You've become a greater extension of my family," he said, which raises concerns about the Gibbs household. But more than wistful, he seemed relieved - an understandable emotion after a grueling tour that couldn't have been good for his health.
"I bet you're going to be following every facet of that budget process over the next two weeks," CBS's Peter Maer joked.
"I will e-mail Jay repeatedly," Gibbs deadpanned. Asked another budget question, he replied: "It's a good question for somebody next week."
In response to a request from Fox News for his personal e-mail address, Gibbs began to spell out Carney's address, then stopped with a "just kidding." But a few minutes later, pressed for an answer on a long outstanding query, Gibbs actually did read out Carney's e-mail address, with the cameras rolling.
This man needs a vacation - and a less taxing job, such as the lecture circuit. Invited by Politico's Carol Lee to reflect on his "relationship with the press corps," Gibbs had a thoughtful response: "Soon, somebody's going to pay me a lot of money to give that assessment, and I look forward to sharing that with them."
He grew misty-eyed again when it was time to leave the podium. "I wish you all good luck," he said earnestly.
In the front row, Caren Bohan of Reuters was skeptical.
"Really?" she asked.
One last time, Gibbs ignored the question and went on his way.