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."
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.
Soon after Burton's name surfaced as a possible successor to Gibbs, so did that of his fellow deputy, Josh Earnest. Earnest, 36, equally accessible and popular with reporters, is an upbeat operative who keeps the flat-screen television in his office tuned and muted to ESPN. He declined to talk about the process or his role in it.
The result, according to several White House staffers who requested anonymity, was tension. Gibbs denied any stress but said that if there was any, he wasn't sympathetic. "If you couldn't handle that," he said of the intense scrutiny, "then you couldn't handle the job."
Among lower-press operatives, the more visceral concern about the unwelcome fishbowl effect is that it dredged up a reputation they thought was in their past, that their shop is a frat house within the White House. (One Democratic consultant called the period of the job search "pledge week.") So what, the operatives said, if there was an afternoon of shirtless drinking in Georgetown or a surfboard-toting exit from Air Force One? Profane e-mails and top-of-the-lungs screaming were isolated incidents unfairly used to depict a dude culture.
But for some reporters, the reputation was well earned. According to a veteran journalist, one assistant press secretary flew into a rage and shouted, "We're going to take you down!" upon discovering that the reporter had operated outside the usual (and often useless) channels of communication to reach out to the subject of a competitive story. Gibbs met with the reporter's bureau chief, who shrugged at the grievance. Subsequently, the subject of the story, a senior government official, apologized to the reporter for the press aide's behavior.
The White House press office said they had no recollection of the incident. Pfeiffer called reports of ranting staffers "overblown."
In his resignation announcement, however, Gibbs jokingly perpetuated the boyish images of his staff.
"It's time to take a little break," Gibbs said, pausing dramatically. "It's time to - there's a little boy who probably needs a ride to school every now and then."
"Vietor?" a reporter interrupted, prompting laughter all around.
"Actually," Gibbs said, "I was talking about Nick - because the surfboard doesn't fit in my car."
A press operative's job is to shape a reporter's story. When the story is about discord in the White House press office, there is a lot of aggressive shaping from a lot of aggressive communications operatives. The phone rings a lot. Incoming e-mails offer guidance on background. Invitations are extended to come and sit with the press secretary, or the communications director, or any number of their deputies. The notion that internecine competition may have caused some tension is a non-starter.
"I don't think the office has had any less impact over the last six to eight weeks than any other time," said Gibbs, after throwing another log into the fireplace of his corner office. As for any tension among his staff, "You're not going to find anyone who says that it exists."
"No comment," said Carney, when asked about any possible tension in his new office. No comment that he wouldn't talk about it, or that he didn't know about it? "No comment," he said. Instead he talked about how "fortunate" he was to work with a crop of people with serious policy chops and access to principals. "I'm not going to talk about anybody else's future," he added, when asked about any upcoming departures from the lower press staff. "I will say that they are excellent."
"I'm not down there as much as other people are," Pfeiffer said from his office about a dozen steps from that of Gibbs. "But I'm not aware of any tension."
In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism official, found time on Thursday afternoon to make an unsolicited call to a reporter to sing the praises of Vietor and Shapiro, calling them hardworking, detail-oriented and "energetic but substantively grounded." As for the shirtlessness and the surfboard, Brennan said that they had "learned a lot."
Shortly before noon on Wednesday, Pfeiffer, biting into an apple, walked down the ramp to the lower press area, entered Earnest's office and closed the door. Reporters walked in and out, looking for information and comment on their stories, and the operatives approved information for "the book," as the press secretaries' briefing book is known. Gibbs drifted in shortly thereafter and walked to the back of the office to confer with Vietor, who held a binder that read "Top Secret."
After they were done, Shapiro pointed to an image on his computer screen of Brennan, hanging out in shorts around Tahrir Square in Cairo back in 1974.
"Nice legs, Brennan," Gibbs said looking at the screen. Then he, too, entered Earnest's office and closed the door.