Robert Gibbs' Toughest Moment of 2008

I have the honor of substitute-anchoring on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" Sunday, as you may know. One of our guests is incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs; we conducted the interview a few days ago and included in it some advice given by his predecessors in the job, Bush White House press secretaries Dana Perino and Scott McClellan and Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

Gibbs had lots of interesting things to say about current events as well as the "daunting" job he will soon assume.

I also asked what he thought was his worst political moment of 2008. Here is that exchange:

GIBBS: Maybe the toughest point that I had was right after we'd clinched the nomination and the president-elect is going to meet with Sen. Clinton.  And 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.  And what separated the cabinet staff -- most of the staff usually sits in -- where the press is, is the Secret Service.  I stopped there and told our detail leader that, "If I'm not back in 15 minutes, get the guns out and come get me out of there."

TAPPER:  Do you regret that decision?  Do you regret not telling the press that--

GIBBS:  We may have handled it differently.  I think we were in a very tough position either way.  And you know, even -- if you look back on it now, people were camped out in different places, expecting that the meeting was happening in different places.  I think it was hard at that point, probably, to bring those two together and to have a serious, private one-on-one conversation.  But I wish there was a way in which we could have done it a little bit better.  I don't, off the top of my head, know how we might have done that.  But I understand the role that each of the entities had to play.

TAPPER:  I think the problem that a lot of people in the media had was that there was almost a lie by omission. I don't want to use the word lie -- but it was not telling the truth by omission because they assumed he would be on the plane because he always was.

GIBBS:  Right.

TAPPER:  But, he wasn't.  There was nothing they could do about it.  All of a sudden, the media was flying off to Chicago.  It wasn't as forthright as you could have been.  And it doesn't stay secret.

GIBBS:  That's why most of the pictures in that event are with me holding my hands up like this, as if I'm the one that's being in a sense, held hostage.  But, you know again, we were -- it was a -- I understood the pitfalls of what [we] were undertaking.  The hardest part was, it was a decision that was made but I was the one that had to implement.

TAPPER:  But you didn't make that decision.

GIBBS:  I wasn't the final say on it, no. But I was comfortably sitting in the third or fourth row understanding that I had to walk in the back of that plane and talk about the decisions.

TAPPER:  This is where press secretaries sometimes get in a little bit of trouble -- which is, you didn't say anything that wasn't true, but there was kind of a narrative and an understanding that turned out not to be true.  And whether or not it was made by the campaign, you were held personally responsible for it.

GIBBS:  And look, I think that's what will happen in my next job.  You know, the press secretary has to represent the administration to the press.  And a lot of the advice that I've gotten from former press secretaries that -- all of them have, but they didn't say here was, you've got to keep -- you're there in meetings and in these rooms to report what happens to the press.  You have to be careful about how you weigh in with your own opinions in those decisions. Because you have to be seen as -- much like everybody has to be on board when you walk out of that room -- 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. Not that each of these press secretaries -- and I'm sure many that you interviewed and some that you didn't -- all are advisors to the president and have advice personally and politically for him.  You're in a different role and how you express that advice in a group setting or one-on-one to the president-elect can matter a lot.  So, that you're seen in that room as somebody who's a real honest broker.


We'll have much more from Gibbs, as well as Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., plus a great roundtable with Kurt Andersen of PRI's Studio 360, CBN's David Brody, Slate's John Dickerson, and National Public Radio's Alison Stewart Sunday morning. Hope you tune in.

-- Jake

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