Thursday, February 10, 2011

UNGIBBED

"[to answer that] would be to dip my toe into the pool of generalization, which I'm certainly not going to do."

Its interesting to me that we've lived through an era of two highly contrasted Gibbs in the naughties. First was Gibbs as played by Mark Harmon on the most popular night time drama on television: NCIS. He's an all American patriot and marine who is quiet and direct and often tortured by past tragedies. Then we have White House Press Secretary Gibbs who is a smarmy, unlikable, grinning child in a man's body. One is fictitious and well liked, the other unpopular and often annoying.

The TV Gibbs still has his job and is going strong. The press secretary Gibbs is retiring.

The problem with Gibbs was that he had one of the worst jobs in the country, but unlike past press secretaries, you cared who he was and what he did because he was so obnoxious. It wasn't that he was partisan, that's his job. He's paid to go out there and repeat talking points, attack the president's enemies, and so on. Why he was picked is as big a mystery as why President Bush before him picked a series of incompetents often hostile to his policies.
"I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it's crazy."
I understand this is a very difficult job facing often hostile press members who will never really like you, but Gibbs went out of his way to be antagonistic and smarmy, treating everyone like he thought they were stupid and meaningless. Apparently a capable political strategist, when dealing with the press, Gibbs became the kid you always wanted to punch in the face; too antagonistic, grinning and defying you to get upset, always trying to poke you where it hurts. And whats worse, for his job description, is that he was often this way to allies and a largely worshipful, sycophantic press.

Dana Milbank in the Washington Post tried to analyze Gibbs:
Carney has the advantage of following Gibbs, surpassed only by Ari Fleischer as the most unpopular press secretary of recent decades. On the podium, Gibbs often appeared to be attempting a revival of Mad magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."
When he wasn't being snarky, Gibbs would tend to talk like a character out of Dilbert, one of those middle management types who spews language that means nothing but fills space and sounds impressive to other middle managers.

"We are monitoring a very fluid situation"
"Space needs to be created for a meaningful dialogue"

To a certain extent that kind of language is inevitable; often the press secretary's job is to keep things quiet that the press really wants to report on, so using vague generalities and imprecise language is useful, but Gibbs really went out of his way to say this kind of stuff.

Like Obama, Gibbs had a tendency to stall while thinking of what to say next by saying "uhh" a lot. This is one of the things I was taught in junior high school not to do in public speaking. Just be silent and have a little pause, and you'll seem thoughtful. Saying "uhh" makes you seem less capable and less intelligent.

Gibbs had few if any supporters even on the left. By 2010, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times was calling for his resignation. His attacks on the left as well as the right and his treatment of the press as enemies and hostile when they were incredibly supportive and often sycophantic toward the president was bizarre. A press secretary's job is to try to shape the reporting on the president and his public image. Gibbs seemed more interested in winning points in some imaginary game.

So who's replacing him? Jay Carney, who was the previous press secretary for Vice President Biden. You'd figure someone in that position would be skilled at making idiotic and embarrassing statements go away, so perhaps he can do the job. But Carney has made a bang up start, according to William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection:
Of course, we don't have much to look forward to, Milbank prefaced his article with an account of an email he received from the incoming Press Secretary, Jay Carney:
The e-mail, coming from the Executive Office of the President and addressed to me, had a catchy subject line: "You are a hack."... The body of the message began with the phrase "shamelessly misrepresented," continued on to refer to "your hackneyed storyline" and concluded: "Fabrication is a legitimate tool - for fiction. You should try it; it suits you."
And that wasn't the only angry email he's sent out. It doesn't look like Obama has learned his lesson. I used to think that he was stuck with Gibbs and regretted the decision, stuck because he didn't want to seem indecisive and incompetent by replacing his press secretary too soon. Now I think he liked Gibbs and thinks that's how the job should be done.

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