Gibbs Prepares for His Starring Role

Can the ex-political knife-fighter adapt to the more genteel White House podium?

Dec. 28, 2008 -- Looking back at the tumultuous, ultimately victorious year past, former Barack Obama campaign senior aide and incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs didn't hesitate when he was asked to name his toughest political moment.

It came, he told ABC News in an exclusive interview, "right after we'd clinched the nomination and the president-elect is going to meet with Sen. [Hillary] Clinton."

Gibbs was part of a bit of Obama campaign misdirection in which the reporters covering the then-Illinois senator, flew on the Democrat's plane from Washington back to Chicago while the candidate stayed behind to secretly meet with his former opponent in the home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Replaying the incident in his mind, Gibbs recalled, "I know that the then-candidate Barack Obama is not going to be on our flight home to Chicago. But, the press doesn't know that. And I held in the car and I got on the plane and right when I got on the plane, we basically moved to taxi and about 15 seconds later, the press realized that the candidate wasn't on the plane. And I knew that was going to be a long ride home for an hour-and-a-half flight. And that we were going to have a lot of explaining to do."

Between the Obama team and the media sat a section of Secret Service agents. On his way back to tell the media why the candidate was not on the plane, Gibbs stopped to speak to them. He "told our detail leader that, 'If I'm not back in 15 minutes, get the guns out and come get me out of there.'"

Gibbs now says the campaign could "have handled it differently. I think we were in a very tough position either way. ... I understood the pitfalls of what were undertaking. The hardest part was, it was a decision that was made, but I was the one that had to implement."

The incident made for a contentious moment between the media and the Obama campaign, and it's one that Gibbs was clearly thinking about as he sat down to talk with ABC News about his new job as White House press secretary.

"A lot of the advice that I've gotten from former press secretaries," Gibbs said, is "you have to be seen as an honest broker that can discuss why this decision was made and how it was made. To explain it to a larger audience via the press. That's a role that a press secretary has to play."

In the briefing room, he said, a press secretary is seen as "a real honest broker."

Born to Auburn University library employees in 1971, the bespectacled Alabaman has worked for Obama since his Senate campaign in 2004.

Known as a bit of a political knife-fighter on Capitol Hill for his work as something of a rogue operative after he left Sen. John Kerry's campaign amid a staff shake-up, Gibbs became a close adviser to Obama in the Senate and took an even more prominent role in the senator's 2008 presidential campaign.

Now, however, he is preparing for the actual act of governing, which can be even tougher. Is he prepared for the intense scrutiny of his every word? Is he ready to serve as a media piñata? And, given that he could likely have served as a senior adviser to the president-elect, why would he want the gig?

"I think it's a tremendously important time in our country's history," he said earnestly. "And if I can help the president through the role of a spokesperson that talks to the country every day in a briefing room or through the work of reporters, that doing that and furthering an agenda that will bring about change and move the country forward, that's a hard opportunity to say no to."

And is he ready?

"Look, I don't know if you ever become ready until you do it," he said.

Having recently rehearsed a few practice briefings in what his colleagues on the Obama transition team jokingly referred to as "press secretary school," Gibbs said, "becoming prepared for this and going through ... a little of the practice of this, it's really unlike anything you've ever done. You know, it's not like a cable interview that lasts four or five minutes. This is something that can last 45 minutes. And you could get questions on virtually any topic at any point.

"When you think about it, it's a little daunting, sure," he acknowledged.

Obama was recently asked by a reporter for the New York Times Magazine which character from Obama's favorite movie – "The Godfather" – Gibbs most reminds him of. Obama suggested the loyal, soft-spoken family lawyer, or consigliere, Tom Hagen, as played by Robert Duval.

"And I've seen a little bit of Sonny in him once in a while," Obama added, referring to the hot-tempered oldest Corleone son whose emotion got the best of him.

"There's no question that everybody has different styles," Gibbs said. "And I think the president-elect, in that article, said that, you know, there's times in which I can be combative for his point of view. And I don't doubt that that's at times going to happen."

ABC News solicited advice for Gibbs from three recent press secretaries – Dana Perino and Scott McClellan from the Bush White House, and Joe Lockhart from Bill Clinton's White House. Gibbs then responded to some of their suggestions.

"I think the biggest challenge any press secretary faces if they've done the campaign is to transition out of the idea that every day is political combat, where you're trying to promote your candidate and by either covertly or overtly, denigrate the other candidate in the American public's mind, and really get to this idea of governing," Lockhart said.

Is that going to be tough for Gibbs?

"You assume different roles at different times," Gibbs said. "I think one of the things that Joe also talks about is, again, there's this range of issues that you're speaking on behalf of the president and the administration on each and every day. You know, it's a little bit less what's going on in the polls and maybe the one central argument that you may be having with a political opponent on any given day."

Suggested Perino: "I think one of the best pieces of advice I ever got from somebody -- I mean, Ari Fleischer, the first press secretary under the Bush administration -- was to not take the questions in the briefing room personally. And that can be hard sometimes, especially when you care deeply about your president. It can sometimes feel like they're coming after you or coming after him through you. And I think the most important thing to remember is to not take it personally."

Gibbs suggested that was a point well taken.

"You have to every day understand that everybody has a job to do," he said. "And anybody that questions the administration, if I'm standing at the podium, or vice versa, I think does that because they have a job to do in covering this administration, and then the workings of a real representative democracy. I do think it's important that you try not to take the questions personally."

It was pointed out that there may have been some times during the campaign when he probably took it personally a little bit.

"Sure," he said. "I don't think there's any doubt….My guess is if you took every one of [the tough questions] personally, you probably wouldn't make it through a whole month without becoming so enraged that you didn't want to talk to anybody in the press. And I don't think that's probably a very good way of operating."

Scott McClellan suggested that Gibbs limit the number of briefings that he does personally within a week and bring in other senior administration officials, to do briefings so as to help the administration get its more substantive message out.

Gibbs said former White House press secretary Mike McCurry gave him similar advice and he agrees.

"The American people are obviously very, very smart," Gibbs said. "They're well ahead on virtually everything. They're well ahead of their representatives in Washington. They understand that the economy is bad, that it's likely to get worse before it gets better. And that this isn't going to get better overnight."

More substantive briefings might help "the American people understand where he or she, if it's a Cabinet official, where they want to take the country, what kinds of plans that they want to implement to help make the lives of average everyday voters a little bit better."

Gibbs suggested that the Bush administration -- "particularly as it relates to the economic recovery or the money that's been used to help banks and to relieve the stresses on our financial system -- if they could do it all over again, I bet one of the things that they might tell you is they probably needed a stronger communications strategy for letting people know and understand how this was going to work and what this money was going to be used for."

Gibbs said that in light of recent reports of insufficient oversight of the $700 billion allocated to help stabilize the nation's economic systems, and reports that some of that money might be spent on executive bonuses, the Obama administration will try to shed more light on the allocation of the funds after taking office.

"Absolutely," he said. "There's no question that this and many other economic problems are going to land on President-elect Obama's plate on Jan. 20. We're a little hamstrung because of the notion that there is only one president at a time."

Lockhart reminded Gibbs to be careful in his words.

"You know, one of the things is that there is tremendous power in everything you say," said the former Clinton spokesman. "As the White House press secretary you're speaking for the leader of the free world and the most powerful institution in the world, the U.S. government. I think I had had the job for a couple of days and someone had made some allegation against the president, I very casually told a reporter that this guy was a liar. It became a big headline and the next thing you know I was sued for $10 million. ...

"You can casually, again, walking down the hallway run into a reporter and make a remark that can set off World War III or tank the stock market."

"At least the expectations aren't that great," Gibbs joked.

Is he ready?

"I'm in the process of getting ready for it," he said. "I don't think I'd be here if people didn't have confidence in my ability to do this."

Can he watch his tongue?

"I think I can," Gibbs said. "I am sure there will be many that will test that premise. I sure there will be people who will keep this tape and play it back when I don't. But again, I look at this as a tremendous honor, what the president-elect has given to me. And I understand -- I think I understand what's at stake, and I understand that this isn't about me, that it's about something far bigger than that."

Perino also advised Gibbs that the toughest job is not defending "the president to the press. But an even tougher job sometimes is defending the press to the president, and speaking up for the press and making sure that they have access and get the answers that they need."

Gibbs insisted that the president-elect respects the job of the media, though he acknowledged there were times he thought reporters too focused on silly items.

"We were watching hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, and we were debating the meaning of the phrase 'lipstick on a pig,'" Gibbs recalled. "But let me use another sort of colloquialism. Hopefully this won't be maligned quite as much as that one is. But I think what Dana says there is, 'You get more flies than you do with vinegar.'"

McClellan, who famously complained about being misled by former senior Bush aides Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Karl Rove during the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plames' identity as a CIA operative, advised Gibbs: "You want to be able to vouch for yourself and for the president, but be careful about vouching for others.

"When you're not in that room when someone was maybe involved in something, you need to be very careful about trying to speak for them," McClellan said. "Let that person either speak for him or herself or make sure you carefully couch how you phrase something, saying that those individuals assured me that they were doing such and such or not doing such and such.

"You want to be very careful about that because when you're not there someone may tell you one thing but you can't know with absolute certainty and so you want to be careful about who you vouch for beyond yourself and the president."

But Gibbs seemed unworried.

"I believe that the people ... the president-elect has been able to assemble in a government that will take over on the 20th of January, I think we've put together a caliber of people that not only that I trust, but certainly have the trust of the president-elect, and I think that's extremely important," he said.

But isn't it inherent in what President-elect Obama has done with his Cabinet – selecting so many strong personalities in his "Team of Rivals," including four former primary opponents – that one will maybe occasionally wander off the reservation?

"I think the far greater risk is assembling a group of people that whenever the president opens their mouth they all nod their heads in agreement," Gibbs said. The president-elect "wants and expects there to be disagreement within that room."

But "there is one person in that room that is going to make the ultimate and final decision. That's going to be President-elect Barack Obama," he said. "And despite the arguments that you may have in the room about the direction or the decisions that you make on different issues, he expects each and every one of us to get behind the decision that's ultimately made, because he is the president of the United States."

ABC News' Mary Bruce and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.

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