Tags: Robert Gibbs

A Brief Defense of This Town From This Town


The Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt features a look at some of the potential primary challengers to South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, Congress waking up and objecting to Obama’s effort to arm the Syrian rebels, and then this hot topic in the nation’s capital . . . 

A Brief Defense of This Town From This Town

I’m eager to read Mark Leibovitch’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital. The reviews make it sound like an utterly delicious dissection of the clubby, incestuous ways of Washington D.C.’s most powerful figures. As the Washington Post review summarized, “His tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place — a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant and acts of public service appear largely accidental.”

But as I see reviewers tripping over themselves to salute the book as the Necronomicon of Washington Insiders, I’m left wondering who, exactly, is still surprised by a description of powerful D.C. officials being ambitious and eager to trade favors and jockeying for status . . . and how, exactly, one would cultivate a culture significantly different from this in the capital city of a democratic republic.

Isn’t any one-industry town a combination of clubby shared interests and quiet competition for superiority? Certainly Hollywood is. Don’t all the big shots in Silicon Valley run into each other at the same parties, eat at the same restaurants, meet at the same conferences, and so on? I realize J. R. Ewing is a fictional character, but I am to believe that Dallas and Houston don’t have their share of ambitious, sharp-elbowed energy-industry executives competing for the corner office? Aren’t most state capitals the same cultural dynamics as Washington, on a smaller scale? And you’re telling me that Manhattan isn’t just as bad or worse when it comes to giant egos, conspicuous consumption, fierce competition, less-than-genuine social-based friendships, and so on?

Any city with a lot of power (political, economic, cultural) and money is going to attract a lot of folks who want to get a part in it. Some will be brilliant, some will be craven, and a lot will be somewhere in between or both.

The ambition, desire for power, and temptation of lies that Leibovitch describes is more or less the human condition, and I’m skeptical that the culture of today’s Washington is significantly different than a generation ago, when Clark Clifford scoffed that Ronald Reagan was an “amiable dunce” at a party while working for the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and Sally Quinn enjoyed her era of “five-course dinners a couple of nights a week, with a different wine for each course, served in a power-filled room of politicians, diplomats, White House officials and well-known journalists.” Want to go back further, to the era of Pamela Harriman’s Georgetown parties? The grand gatherings of Marjorie Merriweather Post? There was no golden age when Washington didn’t have folks who wanted to be thought of as the smartest, the most powerful, the most well-connected, the funniest, and so on.

(If you want to find something likeable about those past eras, let’s note that Washington’s role as “Hollywood for ugly people” meant you were less likely to be judged by your appearance. Henry Kissinger said power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, not his rugged good looks or rumbling baritone.)

Anyway, back to This Town. From the Washington Post’s review:

First, there is longtime NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell — a conflict of interest in human form. Married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Mitchell has specialized in covering administrations and campaigns that “overlapped considerably with her social and personal habitat,” as Leibovich puts it.

There are those weekend getaways at George Shultz’s home. And dinner with Tipper and Al. And that surprise 50th-birthday party for Condi. And what do you do when you’re reporting on the 2008 financial crisis and many people are pointing at your husband as a chief culprit? NBC tossed up a fig leaf: allowing Mitchell to cover the politics of dealing with the financial crisis, but not the conditions that gave rise to it. Such hair-splitting becomes inevitable, Leibovich writes, because Mitchell trying to avoid conflicts of interest is “like an owl trying to avoid trees.”

I can hear you cheering the public flaying of Mitchell for being too clubby with the officials she covers, but let me ask you this: If Andrea Mitchell had been a college professor or worked in some other non-media jobs, would Greenspan be widely sneered and spat upon and put in public stocks to have rotten fruit hurled at him? Does anybody feel like coverage and public discussion of Alan Greenspan — and the resulting public opinion of him — was/is significantly altered by Mitchell’s role at NBC News? Greenspan’s had his defenders and critics hashing it out in the public square for years. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here…)

I need to read This Town to see if Leibovitch finds Mitchell to be the figure at NBC/MSNBC who most deserves a public dressing down. But don’t her offenses seem mid-level at best? In the end, which is more damaging to journalism — Mitchell’s marriage to Greenspan and friendships with elected officials, or MSNBC determining its market role is to be the Obama administration’s in-house network, showcasing the likes of (at various times) Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Lawrence O’Donnell, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.? How about the hiring of Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod as “political analysts”? How about the president of MSNBC declaring, “we’re not the place for breaking news”?

Ahem. Some of us noticed this a long time ago.

Clubbiness between government officials and those who cover them is a legitimate issue to discuss, but the Greenspan-Mitchell marriage feels like a rather dated issue to find objectionable…

Then there’s this, from the New York Times review . . . 

He opens with an account of the 2008 funeral of the NBC Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, and as a quarter-century resident now in happy exile, I suppose I should stick to form and mention, hideously, that we — Tim and I — came to Washington at the same time and were friends, although mostly because I had a wife from Buffalo, and he delighted in teasing her about her bowling. The people at this funeral (and as I recall, this was an invitation-only rite) adhered to what Mr. Leibovich calls “the distinctive code of posture at the fancy-pants funeral: head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for the full telegenic grief effect.”

How does Leibovich know they’re mugging grief for the cameras? How does he know this isn’t how these people look when they’re actually grieving?

Then there’s this litany in the Times review:

So, striding self-importantly through these pages are the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (“harshly judgmental of fat people”); Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican (“a blister on the leadership of both chambers, or sometimes something more dangerous”); Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York (“lens-happy, even by senatorial standards”); the lobbyist and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (“looks like a grown version of Spanky from the Little Rascals”); the former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (“whose willingness to reverse long-held positions in the service of paying clients was egregious even by D.C.’s standards”); and the modern super-flack Kurt Bardella (possessed of “a frantic vulnerability and desperation”).

Lest you’ve forgotten, here’s Spanky. Yeah, yeah, “ha ha ha.” We can all see Barbour. He’s fat. Round face. Double chin. A lot of folks have that. Is making fun of Haley Barbour’s appearance . . . edgy? Daring? Some sort of great, witty insight that reveals the ways of American politics?

Finally, there’s this detail in a long excerpt that ran in the New York Times this weekend:

Robert Gibbs announced that he would be leaving as White House press secretary . . . he was a journeyman flack who struck gold with the right patron and wound up talking at the lectern at 1600 Pennsylvania. Gibbs’s time at the White House had been a mixed bag, which included internal West Wing clashes, strained relationships with reporters and a few mishaps that resulted from excessive candor. But he was nonetheless set for life as a professional “former.” That is, a former official who can easily score a seven-figure income as an out-of-office wise man, statesman or hired gun. “Formers” stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster, and Gibbs would be no exception. He could move seamlessly into the news media (MSNBC) at a time when punditry replaced reporting as journalism’s highest pursuit. (Since leaving the White House in 2011, Gibbs has made about $2 million in paid speeches alone.)

Cue the outrage that Gibbs has made $2 million in paid speaking gigs in about two years. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Just keep in mind that unless you’re a member of an organization that paid Gibbs his unspecified fee — like the Traffic Club of Pittsburgh, National Ocean Industries Association, Union College, American University in Dubai, Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, United States Travel Association, Premier Health Alliance, Citigroup Latin America, Saint Xavier University — he didn’t take your money.

Speaking gigs are pretty much the only way a guy like Robert Gibbs is ever going to make a million a year. If you give a man an opportunity to make oodles of money giving speeches . . . he’s going to take it. Tears for Fears didn’t quite have it right; Lots of folks don’t want to rule the world; they just want to live well while somebody else rules the world.

Tags: Alan Greenspan , MSNBC , Andrea Mitchell , Haley Barbour , Robert Gibbs

Gibbs, Matthews — Who Will Criticize Obama Next, Joe Biden?


The midweek edition of the Morning Jolt features a big roundup of the coming storm of Obamacare, further evidence that the IRS isn’t good at math, and this point about what happens when a very comfortable administration suddenly finds that its old spin and excuses don’t work anymore:

BOOM: The Implosion of the Obama Excuses for the Scandal Parade

Just how bad has it gotten for the Obama administration?

Not even his old spokesman Robert Gibbs can say his boss is handling this stuff well.

Former Obama White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs — now an MSNBC contributor — explained to Andrea Mitchell this afternoon that President Obama made White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s job more difficult due to his passive response to the scandals surrounding his administration

Carney would have had an easier time defending the president, suggested Gibbs, if the President had spoken out on the IRS scandal over the weekend.

“The problem is this — the tenor of this briefing would be different if the president had spoken about this on Saturday or Sunday and not on Monday,” Gibbs explained shortly after Carney struggled to answer reporters questions in the White House Press Briefing.

Gibbs added that President Obama sounded like he was “losing patience” with the issue “which is what I do with my 9-year-old.”

Gibbs explained that Obama should have used “more vivid” language and proposed a tough commission to look at the issue while waiting for the Inspector General to release his report on the scandal.

Well, at least Obama still has Mr. Leg-Tingle himself, Chris Matthews, who — wait, what?

Matthews: President Obama has got to stop taking advice from sycophants who keep telling him he’s right and only they can be trusted. He needs to act. He needs to fire people. He needs to grab control of his presidency. He needs to surround himself with people who are ready to fight on every front, because the three problems he faces now, Benghazi, the IRS and the FBI are less likely to be two problems by this time next week than there are to be four and counting. Why? Because, as I said, it’s not just that he’s under attack. It’s that he’s vulnerable. And that is obvious to everyone this side of the White House gates.

Who’s going to denounce the president next, Joe Biden?

What we saw in Tuesday’s White House press briefing, where the press corps appeared ready to break out the pitchforks and torches and go French Revolution on Jay Carney’s dishonest tush, is what happens when a very comfortable, very confident administration suddenly finds that none of the traditional scandal defenses work.

Dennis Miller: “Carney blows more smoke than a Rastafarian’s death rattle.”

Tuesday afternoon, Ace of Spades came up with the idea of a scandal-excuse prediction game in the form of an NFL-style draft, and Twitchy collected some of the best.

Ace began with, “low level employees”, took “Obama gives a historic speech” in the second round (overrated, I would argue that player peaked a few years ago and has really seen less playing time in recent years) and concluded the third round with a very versatile selection who gets a lot of playing time, “Some procedures may need review/Procedures have let us down again.” My first-round selection was the offspring of the Hall of Famer that everyone remembers from the breakout 1998 season, “The real story here is the shadowy network behind our critics making these baseless accusations.” In the second round I went with a player who has been on the field almost constantly since the start of the 2009 season, “If you look back to the Bush administration . . .”

It’s easy to predict these because anyone who has followed the news during more than one scandal has seen them before. There is a playbook in these sorts of matters: It wasn’t me, it was that other figure/local office over there. I was out of the loop. I was in the loop, but the concerns were never adequately communicated, in violation of established procedures. I knew about it, but I didn’t approve of it. There’s an ongoing review, I can’t comment. All of this happened a long time ago, you’re obsessed with ancient history. This is a distraction from the real business of the country. Finally, don’t you understand that my political enemies are behind this?

All of the above lines are meant to get you to focus on something besides what happened, who’s responsible, and who should be held accountable. All of this is mean to persuade us that their decisions and actions aren’t the problem; the problem is with us, for asking questions about it.

To hell with that.

“In my defense, you guys always swallowed these lines before.”

Tags: Barack Obama , Robert Gibbs , Chris Matthews , Scandals , Jay Carney

The Pre-Debate Spin: Our Guy Stinks, The Other Guy Rocks!


The first Morning Jolt of the week examines CNN’s decision to use a slain ambassador’s diary as a news source, why the president does so many pop culture interviews, and then this bit of pre-debate expectation-setting:

The Pre-Debate Spin: Our Guy Can Barely Speak, Their Guy Is The Reincarnation of Cicero

The first debate is October 3, and you know what that means: it’s time for each side to hype up the skills of the opposition and downplay their own guy’s skills, in an attempt to manage expectations.

Thankfully, Robert Gibbs is about as believable in this role as he was in his last role, as White House Press Secretary.

A senior Obama campaign adviser said Mitt Romney has a leg up on President Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential debates.

“Mitt Romney I think has an advantage, because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year,” Gibbs said Sunday on Fox News.

“Having been through this much more recently than President Obama, I think he starts with an advantage,” Gibbs said.

On Air Force One on Monday, Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Romney was doing more preparation for the debates “than any candidate in modern history.”

“They’ve made clear that his performing well is a make-or-break piece for their campaign,” Psaki said of the Romney team’s efforts.

The blogger Scared Monkeys can’t take it anymore: “Gibbs actually said with a straight face that Romney has the advantage over Obama in the debates because he had previously participated in many debates in the GOP primary. The Political Wire has called it the quote of the day. Please, spare us the BS. Obama is a master campaigner and BS’er. Also, how can anyone be considered a favorite when they will have the liberal corrupt MSM complex moderator against them?”

Here’s what Obama does well: He connects with audiences emotionally and his body language is reassuring. As we’ve mentioned, his message – government will do X, Y, and Z for you – is an easier sell. I still remember pundits doing cartwheels over his statement that health care was a “right,” not a “privilege.” Of course, nobody pays for your other rights. You don’t get a government-provided printing press, television state, firearm, or house to refuse quarter to troops in, etc. It’s one of those lines that sounds delightful to the low-information voters who don’t want to think too hard about how you pay for it, or even how that care can be provided in a country already facing a worsening doctor shortage.

When Obama gets cornered on an issue where the facts are tough for him, he just lies, i.e., “Fast and Furious” didn’t start on my watch, “All you’ve done is send China our jobs,” etc.  If there’s anything we’ve learned this cycle, it’s that nobody cares what the fact-checkers write in their columns a day later.

Obama probably has a slight edge in the debates, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Romney do well.

The GOP nominee really excels when he does his homework, like when he pointed out that Gingrich has the same investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that were the centerpiece of his attacks on Romney. (Thus, all of the lengthy preparation shortage. Maybe he’s hoping to be his own fact-checker, correcting Obama’s lies in real-time.)

And he attacks well, as Gingrich noted recently:

Newt Gingrich on Friday urged Mitt Romney to go after President Barack Obama in next month’s debates with a gusto the former House speaker knows well.

“When he walks in to debate Obama, he’s got to be as tough with Obama as he was with me in Florida,” Gingrich said in an interview on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

After all, Gingrich said, Romney “is not in a competition to be likeable.”

“He’s in a competition to be capable,” Gingrich said. “We need somebody who can turn America around. We need him to convince us that a Romney recovery is better than an Obama stagnation. Unless he can do that, I don’t care how much effort they spend trying to make him likeable – it won’t work.

ADDENDA: I admire the honesty in CNN’s Jim Acosta as he contemplates his Redskins’ loss: “Not that I’m making excuses, but the Skins were without [receiver Pierre] Garcon and [linebacker Brian] Orakpo… two key playmakers. ..Okay, I’m making excuses.”

Tags: Barack Obama , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Robert Gibbs

Mass Burnout? Or Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship?


In today’s Morning Jolt, I look at rumors of Robert Gibbs’s imminent departure and the widespread staff changes hitting this administration:

Could President Obama get along without his longtime spokesman and trusted aide Robert Gibbs? Well, yeah. Life will go on at the White House without Gibbs, probably with fewer “uhs” and “ums” and a bit more smarmy disdain from Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. But with David Axelrod now out in Chicago readying the 2012 campaign, we will have seen an amazing amount of turnover, even at what is usually a natural point for changing-of-the-guard in presidencies.

Larry Summers. Christina Romer. Peter Orszag left to spend more time with his families. Tim Geithner is reportedly on his way out and just waiting for Obama to pick his replacement. That’s the entire economic team, right there. And with all the economic prosperity we’ve enjoyed these past two years, it’s like the breakup of the Beatles, isn’t it?

National Security Adviser Jim Jones has left. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, gone.

The chiefs of staff have all departed. Rahm Emanuel is gone. So is Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain. Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, too. Anita Dunn, the White House Communications Director, too. Greg Craig was out of the counsel’s office within a year. Linda Douglass, the White House commissar of misinformation management, burned out after health care passed. Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. I won’t count Van Jones, since his departure was involuntary. This list doesn’t include Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who isn’t expected to stick around for the full four years.

Back in October, Richard Benedetto noted that while a few administration folks quitting after two years was normal, Obama was outpacing the historical trend, with many previous top White House staffers working four years.

It’s as if the 1980s-era George Steinbrenner is managing the staff over there . . .

Tags: Barack Obama , Robert Gibbs

Gibbs Departing? Then Who Will Fail to Answer Our Questions?


Could White House press secretary Robert Gibbs leave the White House soon?

The Washington Post reports:

As President Obama returns from Hawaii, he is weighing a major reshuffling of his staff that could see as many as eight people playing new key roles in the weeks ahead, Democrats familiar with the process said . . . Among the biggest changes could be the departure of press secretary Robert Gibbs, who is said to be exploring the possibility of leaving the White House altogether, perhaps to set up his own consulting shop and play a leading role in the 2012 campaign, two Democrats said. That move could happen in the coming weeks.

Upon hearing this news, my mind races to this reaction: “Um . . . uh . . . um . . . uh . . . I have no information on that.”

UPDATE: If this pans out, it will be a good move on Obama’s part.

In Democratic administrations, we’ve seen widely respected White House press secretaries (Mike McCurry) and bad ones (Joe Lockhart). From where I sit, Gibbs seems terrible, and yet held in strangely high esteem by Obama. He seems perpetually smirking, dismissive, needlessly contentious, and unable or unwilling to answer questions that are pretty basic and not hostile. Watching the briefings is often painful. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank diagnosed:

Gibbs acts as though he’s playing himself in the movie version of his job. In this imaginary film, he is the smart-alecky press secretary, offering zippy comebacks and cracking jokes to make his questioners look ridiculous. It’s no great feat to make reporters look bad, but this act also sends a televised image of a cocksure White House to ordinary Americans watching at home.

Gibbs is probably credited with the good press Obama received in the 2008 campaign; getting favorable coverage from a liberal-leaning media for the first serious African-American contender for the presidency is a bit like taking credit for the sun rising in the east. Gibbs doesn’t seem to get that the jobs of a campaign spokesman and a White House press secretary are different. In the campaign, he works for the candidate, full stop. In the White House, he’s a public servant and owes at least some accountability and loyalty to the American public.

If Gibbs departs, perhaps his successor will realize the job is about answers, not evasions.

Tags: Barack Obama , Robert Gibbs

Perhaps Gibbs Should Break the Bad News to Pelosi


How times change . . .

February 9:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is literally laughing off the suggestion House Democrats could lose their majority in the midterm elections. In an interview with Roll Call Tuesday, the top House Democrat said her party would “definitely” retain control of the chamber and emerge from the November balloting with “much more than a simple majority.”


Republicans could win control of the House of Representatives in elections in November, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged on Sunday. “There is no doubt there are enough seats at play that could cause Republicans to gain control, there is no doubt about that,” Gibbs told NBC’s “Meet the Press” talk show when asked whether the Democrats would maintain their majority in the House.

Tags: 2010 , Nancy Pelosi , Robert Gibbs

“I Don’t Have Anything to Add to That” = “You Caught Us”


Let me offer an interpretation of Robert Gibbs being even less capable of answering a simple question than usual: If the White House had not offered Joe Sestak a job in exchange for withdrawing from the Pennsylvania Senate race, the White House press secretary would be saying, “We did not offer him a job.”

Instead, Gibbs twitches and repeats endlessly, “I don’t have anything to add to that” and “I’ll refer to what I just said,” like a malfunctioning robot from Westworld.

If the answer were “no,” Gibbs’s answer would be “no.” If the answer is “yes,” Gibb’s answer would resemble a senior moment of confusion coupled with an inability to understand Ed Henry’s supremely simple and direct question.

Tags: Joe Sestak , Robert Gibbs

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