With a hug from the boss and kind words for his staff, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs gave his final press briefing at the White House on Friday and ended his role as the most widely seen face of the Obama administration, second only to President Obama himself.
When reporters gather for the next briefing on Monday, the press secretary will be Jay Carney, the former reporter who has spent the last two years as Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director. Gibbs is moving to an office outside the White House, although he is expected to remain a frequent figure on cable television defending the president he has advised since a long-shot Senate candidacy in Illinois.
That closeness to the president was on display when Obama accompanied him into the briefing room and spoke about his fondness for and reliance on his Alabama-born spokesman.
“Robert has not only been an extraordinary press secretary, but he has been a great friend,” Obama said. “You couldn’t ask for anybody better in the foxhole with you.” Everybody at the White House, he added, “loves Robert … I don’t think we could have a better press secretary.”
The president even credited Gibbs with playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the event that propelled the then-unknown Illinois state senator into national prominence: addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Obama disclosed that only 10 minutes before he delivered that speech, there was a crisis. No one—including future first lady Michelle Obama—liked his choice of tie. A debate ensued, settled only when everybody agreed that the tie around Gibbs’s neck was the solution. “Frankly, he didn’t want to give it up,” recalled Obama, who said he detected “simmering resentment” that he had never returned it to Gibbs.
Until today, that is. The president presented the pale-blue tie, now framed along with pictures of the speech. With that, the president and the man who is perhaps his closest aide embraced; then Obama departed to leave Gibbs to face an unusually packed briefing room.
Some were there to watch Gibbs’s swan song. But on a day of such momentous news, most were there to get the latest on Egypt. True to form, Gibbs wanted to get to those questions rather than talk about himself—something he doesn’t do well.
Before getting to the questions, however, he thanked Obama and his staff, calling it “a tremendous honor and privilege to do this each and every day, to serve and to take part in days like today that are so momentous.”
Gibbs is the ninth press secretary since the Nixon administration to leave midterm. Some, like Gibbs, left voluntarily. Others were pushed out. But regardless of the circumstances, their final briefings have blended the routine of tough questions with the special ones—and featuring applause, compliments, cake, even some music.
By the White House's count, this was Gibbs’s 250th formal briefing. Toss in briefings abroad, gaggles, readouts, and backgrounders, it was his 346th briefing, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News. That trails predecessors like Jim Haggerty (Eisenhower), Larry Speakes (Reagan), and Marlin Fitzwater (Reagan and George H.W. Bush), who each did at least 2,000 briefings.
But now that the daily briefing is televised, it has impact that is both worldwide and immediate. Gibbs noted earlier in the week that his words from the podium “have been broadcast thousands of miles away and interpreted for billions of people. They watch your questions and they watch this government’s answers.”
Especially on a day when the world was watching to see how the White House would react to the toppling of a longtime ally in Egypt, there was no question that Gibbs would have fewer opportunities to flash the jocularity that was on display in most of his prior 345 briefings.
Still, he drew a visit to the briefing room by the president—something that is not the norm for these send-offs. In bringing the borrowed tie, Obama even brought a prop just like President Clinton did when Joe Lockhart stepped down in 2000. Clinton brought an Army helmet then to protect new press secretary Jake Siewert from the press.
But there was no musical send-off for Gibbs as was seen that day. Lockhart was greeted by Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” when he entered the briefing room.
Gibbs’s last day was gentler than the rough treatment accorded Ari Fleischer when he left the Bush administration in 2003. “I walked out to applause which really made me feel good,” recalled Fleischer in an interview with National Journal. “And then they devoured me.”
That was the first White House briefing after a long foreign trip and the eruption of controversy over wording in the State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium.
“It was a very tense briefing about those 16 words,” he said. “And then when reporters were done turning me into a human piñata, they celebrated with me. They brought out a cake and everybody was making jokes that it wasn’t yellow cake.”
Fleischer said he is sure that Gibbs was feeling the same emotions he did when he departed. “It was a very emotional day and for me. It ended with this absolute, almost euphoric sense of relief and high anticipation of getting on with my life,” he said. “The weight just moved off my shoulders as I pulled into the D.C. traffic and blended in with everyone else. It was such a happy moment of relief … because it is such a hard, intense, burn-out job.”
If your exit is your own decision, Fleischer said, the final day “is a sweet one.” But, he added, “If you leave in acrimony or because you were asked to leave, it will linger your whole lifetime, and I imagine it would be a very bitter, mean departure, sort of like Scott McClellan’s.”
McClellan, who replaced Fleischer in the job, was forced out three years later.
The most poignant send-off came for Tony Snow, who replaced McClellan. His departure was hastened by the return of cancer, and at the time of his final briefing, he was gaunt, his hair thinning. “I’ll miss it,” he said of the job. But, he added, “Life will continue, including for me.”
Almost exactly 10 months later, he died.
The mood this Friday was much lighter, with Gibbs clearly looking ahead to a less stressful life—as evidenced by the “week-ahead” schedule he announced to close the briefing. Before giving the president's upcoming events, he said that his personal schedule on Monday would start with “travel with Ethan Gibbs to school.” He then will watch SportsCenter, ride his bike, take a nap, and pick up his son at the bus stop. “Travel pool will accompany,” he said to laughter from the reporters. After the briefing, when reporters gave him champagne and a rum cake, he told them, “I will miss you. I had lots of fun.”
But he made clear he is not saying goodbye. “I don’t intend to go anywhere,” he said. And he made clear that he would be back at the White House in two months when his beloved Auburn Tigers come to the White House to celebrate their college football national championship.
“Auburn will be here in mid-April, and I'll be back,” he promised.