Robert Gibbs is a unique White House creature, with more authority over messaging and more access to the president than perhaps anyone else who’s ever held the position.
“Gibbs is a little different than your average press secretary in the sense that he is also intimately involved … in the long term strategic planning as well, in the same way as [senior adviser to the president David] Axelrod is,” said Dan Pfeiffer, deputy director of White House communications.
Pfeiffer and Gibbs both sat down for interviews this week for an article that will appear in the newspaper on Friday about the White House communications effort.
Gibbs confirmed that he is intimately involved in strategic long-term planning for messaging.
“Obviously Axelrod and I have, while not being sort of primarily responsible for, we still have a lot of input in the process of sequencing and messaging,” Gibbs said.
I talked also with Dan Bartlett, President Bush’s first communications adviser who then became a senior adviser, who questioned whether it is wise for Gibbs to be handling both the daily press briefing and strategic planning.
“They’re two very different animals, different functions,” Bartlett said, calling the briefing “all consuming.”
“To ask somebody to be in charge of both is I think asking too much,” said Bartlett, who is now president of Public Strategies, Inc.
Gibbs didn’t say much to try and defend himself: “Look, I did a lot of that in the campaign,” he said .
But I asked him this week whether he had done enough to prepare for the job, and he was quick to say, quite resolutely, “No.”
“The sheer amount of paper you have to ingest every day and be able to speak reasonably cogently about it is enormous. That there is no preparation for,” Gibbs said.
On Wednesday Gibbs alluded to the toll that his job is taking on him, telling reporters on Air Force One en route to Iowa that he was feeling “worn out.”
Near the end of a question and answer session, Gibbs mentioned his tiredness again while making a point about why Ellen Moran is leaving her position as White House communications director to go work for Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.
“You guys asked me how I was doing when I came back here and my first answer was that I was worn out. She had the opportunity to go work as the chief of staff for the Commerce — the new Commerce Secretary. It’s a position that greatly interests her and it gives her a chance to spend more time with her husband and her children,” Gibbs said.
“And I don’t doubt that we’re all in many ways uniquely jealous of the opportunity to continue being a public servant at a level as high as that, but at the same time, having more time to see your family. I saw my son last night, but it was about 11:00 p.m. So I can understand what that means,” he said.
During our interview, Gibbs gave a general outline of the daily rhythm he has settled into during his first three months in the job. He usually gets to the White House at 6 a.m.
“Obviously the number varies to some degree. But if I get here at six, I usually have an hour to an hour and a half to sort of get a first good look at, ok,” and he gestured over to the newspapes on his desk.
“And then 7:15 I meet with [assistant press secretary] Reid [Cherlin] and [deputy press secretary] Bill [Burton], and we get a sense of the briefing book for— you can go through the paper and say, ‘Okay here are the 10 or 12 things I think I’m going to get,’” he said.
Pfeiffer also said that he and Moran have been meeting with Gibbs three times a day.
I also asked Gibbs what he thought about a column by Ana Marie Cox in the Washington Post last Sunday, which argued that the White House press corps should be done away with.
“I didn’t find the argument that compelling,” Gibbs said.
“I have a greater appreciation, again, in all honesty, for— first it’s a pretty grueling beat. But you have a greater appreciation for people who are charged with just covering one institution, but then you understand the power and the depth of the institution, and how important it is to what’s going on in the country today,” he said.
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times