By Alan Caruba
“Mouthpiece” is one of those wonderful words that just says it all. As slang, it refers to a lawyer for a mobster, but its more respectable definition is “a person, newspaper, etc., that conveys the opinions or sentiments of others; a spokesperson.”
There are many thankless jobs, but surely being the White House spokesperson, the individual who must face the reporters every day to explain policy, make announcements, and respond to criticism of the President, must surely rank high on the list.
Bush began with Ari Fleischer, a very skilled and apparently well-liked White House spokesman, but when Fleischer left, he was replaced by Scott McClellen, a man so out of his depth that the occasional missteps of Bush were magnified by his inability to put any kind of spin on them. After he left the office, he wrote a bitter book about the experience, further confirming that he was a weasel.
Some, however, were very good at it. I think immediately of Tony Snow who joined the Bush administration at a time when it was under fire for its Iraq policies. Tony dealt with all questions with amazing grace and good spirits. Only cancer could and did get the best of him.
Dana Perino stepped in after Snow’s passing and turned out to be a poised and perfect replacement. As they say in the world of sports, a natural. It didn’t hurt that, in a male dominated news corps, she was very easy on the eyes.
Both Snow and Perino were fortunate insofar as they spoke for a man who was pretty much what you saw. Bush took the job of president seriously, but not himself. He, like Reagan and his own father, was completely at ease in the job and, when he said something, his spokesman didn’t have to explain it a dozen times in varying shades of differing interpretations.
That brings us, of course, to Robert Gibbs, Obama’s mouthpiece. A New York Times profile in December swiftly passed over the fact that Gibbs has never spent a day as a working journalist.
Gibbs began as a campaign volunteer, initially for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, while still a student at North Carolina State University. He was John Kerry’s press secretary until a colleague was fired and Gibbs quit in solidarity with him. Casting around for a similar position, he would join the Obama team and, to his great good fortune, establish a very close bond and rapport with the future president.
The Times profile described him as “a journeyman campaign flack who latched onto Barack Obama’s race four years earlier and has been his chief spokesman ever since.” He was also described as “an affable Alabaman” and, if affability were the only factor the job requires, there would be little to criticize. However, truthfulness, especially in an administration that trumpeted its “transparency”, is the priority.
Gibbs does a daily tap dance in a room full of human land mines and he is skilled at it, but he looks increasingly disturbed by events that have understandably turned very ugly. His preternatural calm demeanor is coming undone.
I have no confidence in anything Gibbs says about anything. One notices that much of what he does say is accompanied by a measure of nervous laughter and quick, automatic smiles.
Measured against previous White House spokespersons, Gibbs represents a new, tech-savvy generation. He is generally impenetrable, always “on message”, and completely loyal to Obama.
To that extent his job is comparable to the one that involves walking behind the elephants as the circus makes its way down Main Street. The Obama circus is leaving a lot to clean up every day.