< At Obama's Podium

Transcript

Friday, December 19, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
This week, President-Elect Obama continued unveiling nominees for Cabinet positions and top economic posts, but one of the first positions he announced, just days after the election, was that of press secretary – Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs came on board Obama’s campaign for Senate in 2004 after quitting the John Kerry presidential race. Since then, he’s been Obama’s right-hand man on issues ranging from messaging strategies to deliberations on fantasy football.

The native Alabaman, a proud member of Rednecks for Obama, is known for being a lot disorganized and at least a little confrontational. Reporter Mark Leibovich wrote about Gibbs for this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, and he asked Obama who Gibbs is most like from the president-elect’s favorite movie, which is The Godfather.

First, he answered the consiglieri character, Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, but, Leibovich says, Obama thought about it a little longer, and -
MARK LEIBOVICH:
He said, you know, I've seen a little bit of Sonny in Robert, also. And I wanted to inform readers or remind leaders that Sonny was, in fact, a murderous hothead, [BOB LAUGHS] but they thought it would be gratuitous.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] They let it just stand as if it were understood by everybody. It’s certainly understood by me, because I remember a number of little flaps during the campaign where “hothead” seemed to be just the right description.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
Although we should say Gibbs has never been accused of being murderous.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] Okay, noted.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
He’s very back-slappery in the day-to-day, and he talks about sports and he’s very funny. He can crack jokes. But he will get in your face.

He had this fairly memorable tête-à-tête with Sean Hannity after one of the debates in which Hannity was bringing up questions about Obama and Bill Ayres. And Gibbs came back at him and accused him of being an anti-Semite because, I guess, Hannity had had an anti-Semite or got someone who’s been accused thereof on the show a couple of days earlier.
[CLIP]:
ROBERT GIBBS:
Are you anti-Semitic?
SEAN HANNITY:
Not at all.
ROBERT GIBBS:
Okay. On your show on Sunday, the centerpiece of that show was a guy named Andy Martin, right?
SEAN HANNITY:
I know you’re reading your talking points that you brought here.
ROBERT GIBBS:
No, no, no, no I don’t have talking points.
[OVERTALK]
Andy Martin called a judge a crooked, slimy Jew -
SEAN HANNITY:
I totally, completely –
ROBERT GIBBS:
- who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race.
SEAN HANNITY:
Here’s my answer to you. But wait a minute, I –
ROBERT GIBBS:
You put him on your show. It’s the Hannity-
SEAN HANNITY:
We put Malik Shabbazz on the show. I put –
ROBERT GIBBS:
Why am I not to believe that you’re anti-Semitic?
SEAN HANNITY:
Well, let me, here’s –
ROBERT GIBBS:
Why am I not to believe that everybody –
SEAN HANNITY:
Here’s the answer.
ROBERT GIBBS:
- who works for the network is anti-Semitic?
[END CLIP]
MARK LEIBOVICH:
So that was, you know, YouTube gold.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, but tell me about when he’s gone after not Sean Hannity, but reporters merely having the misfortune to represent news organizations that had disappointed the campaign.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
There have been several instances over the course of the campaign, or were several instances over the course of the campaign, in which reporters, by their telling, were kept off the campaign plane because of either negative things that they have written or things that their news outlet did, i.e., endorsing John McCain.

Now, the campaign strenuously denies that they have ever kicked anyone off the plane for reasons other than space issues, but then when I pressed Robert, he said, sure, occasionally it does happen.

So the whole Obama conceit is, we are transparent, we are open, we are service with a smile, but Gibbs is very much the old-school sort of bad cop.
BOB GARFIELD:
You pointed out in your piece that we can expect message discipline in the Obama White House not dissimilar to the message discipline enforced during the Bush Administration.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, explicitly told me that we followed the Bush model when it comes to message discipline. The Blagojevich scandal is kind of a case in point. I mean, on one hand they are saying, you know, we are going to release details of every conversation our staff has had with the governor, but, on the other hand, Obama has been fairly testy when questioned on this.

On Tuesday, during a press conference, Barack Obama was questioned by John McCormick of The Chicago Tribune about just this, and he was very testy.
JOHN McCORMICK:
Over the weekend, The Tribune reported that Rahm Emanuel, your incoming chief of staff, had presented a list of potential names that –
BARACK OBAMA:
John, John, let me just cut you off, because I don’t want you to waste your question. As I indicated yesterday, we've done a full review of this. The facts are going to be released next week. It would be inappropriate for me to comment because the – for example, the story that you just talked about in your own paper, I haven't confirmed that it was accurate and I don't want to get into the details at this point. So do you have another question?
MARK LEIBOVICH:
They want to control information as much as any other White House has, and I think that that’s important to remember. And, you know, for as much high-tech innovation, you know, putting the weekly radio address on YouTube and sending text messages out to a zillion people to tell them who the new Cabinet something is, I mean, this is a very, very old-school way of how White Houses communicate with the press.
BOB GARFIELD:
In the beginning of your piece you were talking about the pride the campaign takes in being outsiders, that they're actually kind of laughing at the inside-the-Beltway [LAUGHS] media elites.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
Right. I was amazed at how open they were in their sort of post-election disdain for the, quote, unquote, “chattering classes of Washington.” I mean, David Plouffe, the campaign manager, said, if the politico and the page – this is the Time Magazine sort of tip sheet – if they say we're up, we're down, or if they say we're winning, we're losing.

And, you know, one of the things the Obama campaign boasted about is that they never did an editorial board meeting with The Washington Post, which would have been unheard of in previous campaigns, and probably was pretty smart because, as Gibbs said, there aren't a lot of people in Waterloo, Iowa reading The Washington Post.

However, when you are in Washington, your constituencies are different. I mean, there are, you know, 400 members of Congress, I'd venture, who are reading The Washington Post. You know, I assume they're smart enough to realize that.

But I was sort of surprised by how far they seem to be continuing to take the sort of “we know a better way to reach people than to dealing with the same media suspects.”
BOB GARFIELD:
Let’s come back to Gibbs for a moment. You pointed out in your piece that he will have the advantage on the podium of not being just a mouthpiece for the president but also an advisor, very much in the inner circle. But you also observed that that can come back to haunt a spokesman and his boss.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
Robert Gibbs conceivably could be privy to more information about what the president is thinking about, how he thinks about things, the president’s history, than any spokesman in a long, long time. And when you have that institutional knowledge, it certainly enhances the authority with which you can speak from the podium.

But at the same time, there will be many more occasions when he cannot convincingly say, I'm not aware or I don't know or – I mean, basically, knowledge can be a very dangerous thing at that podium. And when you have knowledge, you have more to lie about or more to obfuscate about, and that’s sort of the basic physics of information.

All things being equal, it will nice to have a spokesman who knows a lot, but the question is, will this only make him all the more careful and all the more scripted?
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, Mark, thank you.
MARK LEIBOVICH:
Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:
Mark Leibovich is a national political reporter for The New York Times. His piece, Between Obama and the Press, is in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.