On Monday morning, Robert Gibbs unleashed a verbal barrage against the political enemy, looking straight into the MSNBC cameras, each shot launched in a mild Alabama drawl.
“I’ve watched the Dan Senor infomercial,” Gibbs said, holding back a smile. “Now I’d like to be Factcheck.org and bring a little truth into this discussion.”
He accused Senor — a Romney policy advisor and former spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad — of “changing the subject six times.”
“Gimme a break, guys,” Senor said, exasperated, at the Morning Joe set at 30 Rock.
“Gimme a break,” Gibbs replied, from a remote studio location. “Gimme the tax returns!”
In the seven minute exchange, Gibbs managed to accuse Romney of wanting to “pick up some millionaires and billionaires [in a bus] and shower them in cash,” cheating on his taxes, and having a shell company in a foreign land. He mentioned the words “Bermuda,” six times, “Caymans” four times, and a variation on “Swiss bank account” or “Switzerland” six times.
The morning had the air of a welcome back party for the president’s former press secretary, now again an official part of his campaign. Once one of Obama’s closest confidantes—Gibbs had been on board since 2004, when the future president was still just a state senator, and was known to share private dinners with him during his time in Congress—he’d fallen out of favor with others in the first family, clashing openly with Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett over how to handle the first lady’s image, among other issues.
The dispute became public—and immortalized—when he was quoted in Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas, published earlier this year, as having said “fuck her too” during an argument about the First Lady. It wasn’t the first time foul language had been used in private in Washington, it’s true, but it did undermine Gibbs’ ability to plausibly claim he spoke for the entire administration.
Now he’s back, leading the attacks on Mitt Romney’s tax record, a message the campaign has been trying to get traction on for months. On Sunday, he’d done a CNN morning show. And before the Morning Joe hit, was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on her first day on the job at the Today Show. In just 24 hours, Gibbs had spent more time on-air than in the previous three months combined.
“There was a cooling off period,” says one former Obama advisor who worked with Gibbs. Despite the public spat—and the “unwise thing,” he said, as another friend put it—colleagues say the president still considers Gibbs a friend. David Axelrod, the president’s guru, also remains a crucial Gibbs ally.
That being said, there’s the “Michelle and Valerie thing,” and in his role as senior advisor, “he won’t have to deal with them,” says the source. It’s unlikely that relationship will repair itself anytime soon, if at all, according to Gibbs’ former colleagues.
“The president depends on him on certain level, and personally wants him to be involved,” says the former advisor. “That’s where you want your friends.”
Another colleague says that as the campaign begins to enter the home stretch, Gibbs will be doing more and more media appearances. Especially, as he’s known to “like taking shots and punching back. He’s an adrenaline junkie, and he’s determined to fight for his guy,” says one longtime friend.
Not that everyone in Obamaland is so keen to welcome him back. Though even his critics admit his talent and quick wit, he’s considered a terrible and sometimes abrasive manager. Gibbs is also associated with Obama’s “Boys Club”—the group of men on Obama’s inner circle, known for a kind of macho culture. The 2012 campaign has more female staffers in leadership positions than when Gibbs ran things in 2008. (In one instance, the men at the White House had all gone to see baseball’s All-Star game in St. Louis while the women stayed at the White House working late.) The face of the campaign this time around is the veteran political operative Stephanie Cutter who, sources say, has a close relationship with both President Obama and the First Lady.
After leaving the podium in February 2011, Gibbs entered into a kind of exile from the Obama camp. Friends say he was burnt out and frustrated at the frequent clashes he’d had with others in the administration—there was “stress and there was the stress of the White House, which was on a completely different level,” says one friend. Other White House colleagues said Gibbs was “less than enthusiastic” about leaving, though he claimed to have planned on going all along.
When he’d taken the job in 2008, Gibbs had been feted at a party at the Hawk and Dove thrown by his friend, Democratic operative Jim Jordan. In power, he had hundreds of new friends in town. Upon his departure, reporters were openly criticizing him, accusing him of the (quite understandable) crime of hating journalists. Gibbs’ messaging, his critics within the administration said, was too narrow, his voice often too cutting and sarcastic.
Taking his place was the more placid Jay Carney, a former journalist trained at Time magazine — not the world’s most smart-alecky, controversial publication — in the art of communicating inoffensively to a mass audience.
During one of his very last weeks in office, Gibbs invited Emily Sparrow, his high school government teacher from his hometown of Auburn, to the White House so she and and other teachers could see it before he left. They had a tour, sat in on a press briefing, and spoke to Gibbs in his office for about 15 minutes.
“I really think he realized that he would not be there forever,” Sparrow said, recalling her former student fondly. “That’s a job where there’s so much pressure and responsibility, it was time for him to move on and – he told us ‘I’m gonna do some other things that are really exciting’…and ‘you’re really gonna like the guy who is gonna follow me.”
He appeared to be struggling to find his footing, failing to land a high-profile job at Facebook (Joe Lockhart, another former White House press secretary, got the job instead). Though Gibbs declined to be interviewed for this story, there are number of theories as to why he didn’t get that gig. One that his friends push is that he truly wanted to spend time with his family; another, that those more critical of him suggest, is that he was too arrogant after his time in the White House, and the Facebook team just didn’t like him.
As one female Obama official told BuzzFeed: “Gibbs was an arrogant asshole before he became a famous press secretary, and it’s not a surprise that he’s an even bigger arrogant asshole now.”
(Others interviewed for the story — including college students whose questions Gibbs went out of his way to answer after public appearances — think he’s a nice guy.)
It’s been clear for some time that Gibbs wanted to get back in the Obama tent. He spent much of his time in the wilderness on the speaking gig circuit, buck-raking and waxing nostalgic on campuses and to banker and business audiences about his days with Obama. Gibbs was introduced at several of the events as a close Obama confidant “who has spent more time with President Obama than any other advisor,” part of his official speaker’s biography.
“He talked about a time when Obama needed a tie and Gibbs took his own right off his neck and gave it to Obama,” says junior Shiah Shahmohammadi, vice president of the George Washington College Democrats.
Michael Tomsic, a student journalist at the University of North Carolina, recalled that Gibbs spoke “mostly about the past. His lecture was focused on the job he had as press secretary.” The speech at UNC was one of the packaged suggestions from Harry Walker Agency, “Communicating Through the Chaos.”
(He’s done about 34 speaking engagements since leaving the job, according to a count by BuzzFeed, compared to only two Obama For America events. 17 of those events he did in traveling roadshow fashion with Karl Rove in what the Harry Walker speaking agency marketed as the “most sought after debate duo.”)
Earlier this year, as Gibbs started to appear more regularly on the Sunday talk show circuit, he hesitated to speak for the campaign, or the president. He would say things like: “I’m no longer in those meetings” as he told CNN in February or “I haven’t talked to the President on that issue,” as he said on This Week. In March, his nostalgiac tendencies were on full display in a back-and-forth with Andrea Mitchell.
“Tell us what is probably going on in the green room, the real green room at the White House,” she asked him.
“Well, look, they`ve probably just finished up prep session in the Oval Office,” he answered. “He`s probably just sitting there watching, looking at his watch, wondering when it`s going to get started, and I hope there’s somebody in there trying tell him jokes and get him to laugh and smile a little bit.”
Perhaps Gibbs will get the chance to do so again.
With additional reporting by R.W. Cramer.