Press secretary with wit and drawl

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When President Obama says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has been there from the beginning, it’s true. Standing nervously backstage before his debut as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, Mr. Obama was involved in a half-hour debate over which tie he should wear for the speech that was about to launch his political fame.

“We finally settled on the tie that Robert Gibbs was wearing,” Mr. Obama wrote in his book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

Mr. Gibbs says now that he was reluctant to hand over the light blue tie.

“I really liked the tie; I didn’t want to give it to him,” Mr. Gibbs told The Washington Times. “I went back and bought the same one after the speech.”

The bespectacled press secretary, an aide and close adviser to Mr. Obama since his U.S. Senate bid the year of the convention, paused and grinned.

“I wore it at the inaugural,” he said.

As Mr. Obama took the oath of office Jan. 20, the blue-tied Mr. Gibbs stood far above him, near violinist Yo-Yo Ma on a platform looking down at the swearing-in ceremony.

In the less than two weeks since Mr. Obama has worked in the White House, he has visited frequently with Mr. Gibbs, who says he aims to give a reflection of the president’s thinking and direction from the podium where he briefs the press.

“I don’t think there are a lot of ways to get ready for this,” Mr. Gibbs told The Times one recent evening between bites of a cookie. “The amount of preparation needed for the day is remarkable.”

He said he has had a learning curve as he must understand government issues and policy “at a different level” from what he was used to as a campaign spokesman.

“You can’t fake your way through Middle East peace,” he said.

Though he keeps two BlackBerrys - one for personal calls and the other for White House business - Mr. Gibbs isn’t known to be completely tech-savvy.

Deputy press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Gibbs carries “mysterious notecards” in the front pocket of his jacket, often jotting down everything from policy questions to notes on which birthday parties his son is attending.

“The system obviously works, but it predates the digital age,” she quipped.

In a profile last fall, Mr. Gibbs’ Alabama hometown newspaper, the Auburn Villager, called him “little Bobby Gibbs.”

Mr. Gibbs, 37, seems amused that he has gotten so much attention back home.

Past friends, friends of friends and a teacher who knew someone who knew him in preschool are all coming forward to wish him well as he becomes the face of the Obama administration.

Settling in

Mr. Gibbs told The Times it’s funny “how many people seem surprised I have decent clothes that look good on TV” and noted it is a far more “mature setting” than the campaign trail.

At that moment in the early evening, Mr. Gibbs was sitting in his office sans jacket but sporting cuff links, his pink tie a bit crooked from the long day.

He answered his phone with “Hey” and in a conversation with a reporter that night, twice said “cool” before hanging up.

CNN played on a large flat-screen television on the opposite wall from his desk, not far from a sign displaying the times in Washington, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Doha, Baghdad, Moscow and Beijing.

Mr. Gibbs said he will need to do some decorating, and his office does look like one in transition - binders are scattered around the room along with a stray hole punch and a Diet Coke can. His desk - most recently used by Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino - is littered with newspapers, his security badge and both BlackBerrys.

Friends and colleagues who have gotten to know Mr. Gibbs as he has worked as communications director or spokesman for a host of Democratic candidates and legislators say they love that he brings a Southern twang to the job, both literally and in spirit.

“In these tough times, his wit and genuine Southern charm is needed,” said former colleague Cara Morris Stern of Hildebrand Tewes Consulting, who worked with Mr. Gibbs when he was at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2001 through 2003. She is “glued to the TV” to watch Mr. Gibbs at the podium, she added.

She remembered Mr. Gibbs once describing a Republican’s tiny media buy as “like spitting in the Chattahoochee and measuring for change of depth,” just one of the many “Southernisms” she hopes he shares with the nation.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said some staffers raised eyebrows in a recent meeting when Mr. Gibbs used a metaphor that was “something about a white horse on a lawn eating an apple.”

“He sometimes is so down-home he gets almost too folksy for even his own staff to understand,” a laughing Mr. Burton said.

Former John Edwards spokesman Mark Kornblau, who worked with Mr. Gibbs on a 2000 campaign, said he had hoped some of the Southern charm would rub off on him after they shared close quarters.

“I used to go sit in a chair next to his desk to listen while he returned reporters’ calls. You could charge admission for that,” Mr. Kornblau said. “Robert uses some very colorful expressions that unfortunately don’t work for those of us born without the Southern accent.”

Even though they were on competing teams during the primary, he thinks Mr. Gibbs is “exceedingly smart, fun to be around, and a good person. You rarely get three out of three in one person in Washington.”

From the podium

“Let me just take a second to get organized,” the press secretary says - almost every day - when taking his position in front of reporters gathered in the Brady Briefing Room.

Reporters genuinely like Mr. Gibbs, but privately they complain about the briefings and what he said himself is a sometimes “overbearing” style defending his boss.

Reporters so far are saying they appreciate that he allows follow-up questions, though his frequent non-answers get old.

Others have called it “painful,” saying they must fight to stay awake as he gives long answers with repetitive administration talking points.

So far he’s had few major errors - he goofed and revealed during the televised briefing a senior adviser’s name who had given a background-only talk earlier in the day.

He tries to make up for such gaffes with humor, regularly working in sports metaphors and making a “food fight” joke not long after he compared Congress to “Dancing With the Stars.”

He got laughs for lines such as: “I’m not an economist, and I don’t play one on TV, and I won’t play one on TV today.”

Reporters view him as an affable but ferocious deflector of any critical story about his boss.

A reporter who worked with Mr. Gibbs on the campaign trail said the press briefings are both boring and collegial, adding: “I don’t know if that bodes for good or evil.”

The reporter also quipped, “He’s a guy’s guy who seems to have somehow read a copy of the erstwhile girl’s book “The Rules”: He only answers one out of every three calls and will every so often threaten to break up with you over seemingly nothing.”

Others noted for this story that he’s friendly but “for the most part, completely unhelpful.”

A top official close to the press secretary once confided in the press that Mr. Gibbs was a bit anxious during airplane travel, especially given the frequent bumps, rough landings and air pockets encountered on the campaign charter. A Heineken would sometimes help, the official said.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Gibbs’ most-used line was “I’ll get back to you,” but he rarely did. Reporters grumbled during the transition that Mr. Gibbs often ignored multiple calls and e-mails but have since said they appreciate his accessibility and proximity to the press room.

Though politics rarely surfaced on the muddy field when Mr. Gibbs was a goalkeeper in the early 1990s, North Carolina State soccer coach George Tarantini remembered his player as competitive, having “very strong opinions.”

Mr. Tarantini said the new job isn’t so different from being a goalie: “The guy who blocks the others is not always celebrated. It’s the guy who scores the goals who takes all the glory.”

“I wish him a lot of luck - I know he’ll have to make a lot of saves,” the coach said.

So far, Mr. Gibbs has shown he’s unafraid of engaging political enemies, earning Internet fame for clashing with Fox News’ Sean Hannity in the fall.

More recently, Mr. Gibbs poked fun at conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh during one of his briefings, and after being told the radio giant was live on the air at that moment, quipped: “Tell him I said, ‘Hi.’ ”

On Mr. Obama’s third day in office, Mr. Gibbs peeked into the press room a few hours after giving his maiden briefing. “Someone wanted to come see you,” he said, stepping aside to reveal the president, who wanted to thank reporters “for not just completely ripping up Gibbs.”

The president said he gave the press secretary a congratulatory fist bump when the briefing was over.

“He works harder than the rest of us. I haven’t gotten here one day when he hasn’t been here already,” Mr. Burton said of his boss.

Actually, Mr. Gibbs wakes up in his Alexandria home at 4 a.m. and is in place getting policy briefings by 5:45 a.m.

He’s noticed he is losing weight because he often eats just one meal a day: lunch after the daily briefing.

Family man

His mom, Nancy Gibbs, told the Auburn Villager last year that her son may have developed a political interest when she dragged him to her volunteer sessions at the League of Women Voters.

Perhaps the interest in politics is inherited.

Anyone who has spent time with Mr. Gibbs knows how to spark a gleam in his eyes - conversations about his son, Ethan.

Ethan, 5, sometimes was spotted on the trail and bragged he had fun last year when the Obama family baby-sat him during their vacation in Hawaii.

Mr. Gibbs told The Times it has been tough because he got used to spending more time with Ethan during the transition period, but with the first 100 days looming, he said he rarely gets home in time to see his son or read to him before bedtime.

Perhaps that’s why he smiled when telling the press he had not attended the president’s cocktail party for congressional leaders Wednesday night.

“I went home to read a book to my son,” he said, offering the extra detail that it was “something on mummies.”

Mr. Gibbs proudly recalled Ethan’s visit to the Oval Office the weekend after the inauguration. He said his son is excited to learn about presidents and that the 5-year-old had pointed to something in the room to declare matter-of-factly, “That’s John Quincy Adams.”

“He’s up on it,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president is well aware of Ethan’s interest and recently gave Mr. Gibbs an Air Force One toy set to take home to his son.

Mr. Obama offered it with strict instructions: “Make sure he knows that’s from the president of the United States.”

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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