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Press Secretary Robert Gibbs And The Ceremonial Flak Jacket

December 21, 2008

Of all the jobs in Washington, D.C. (other than that of POTUS) this is the one that I think would be the most challenging and delightful. This is the dream job!  Robert Gibbs is about to become a household name. 

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Robert Gibbs is about to start a job that, like the presidency, seems to age its occupants disproportionately to the years they spend in the job. And it happens live and on C-Span. Known in Washington shorthand as “the podium job,” it has achieved a certain iconic stature — or thanklessness — in the ritual kabuki of Washington. White House press secretaries get a daily blistering from the press, nightly ridicule from comedians and are subjected to the widespread belief that they are unhelpful, obfuscating puppets — which, of course, they sometimes are.

The job also carries a distinct stature. Podium veterans are typically remembered for their work in the briefing room more than anything else. Gibbs has already become well accustomed to the odd celebrity that accompanies high-profile front men in the cable age: people recognizing him in airports, campaign volunteers asking for his autograph. One local driver told Gibbs she was as excited to meet him as she was to meet Obama.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I met Gibbs for lunch at a cafe near his home in Alexandria. He is 37 but has an ageless face — at once boyish and well worn — that could put him anywhere from 25 to 50. Gibbs gained considerable weight during the campaign that he is trying to shed, and he has a habit — maybe unconscious — of running his hands up and down his paunch while he speaks. (“The chronicle of his weight is a story unto itself,” Obama told me.)

Gibbs scrolled back a few days on his BlackBerry to show me a helpful reminder that the current White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, sent him. “Remember to unlist your phone number,” it said. “Your wife will thank you.” (His wife, Mary Catherine, had already thought of that.)

Podium alums share a bipartisan kinship, signified by the ceremonial flak jacket that hangs in the closet of the press secretary’s West Wing office. It was placed there originally by Gerald Ford’s podium man, Ron Nessen. Outgoing press secretaries write notes of advice for their successors and leave them in one pocket. Every previous note remains there, neatly arranged and tied together in a ribbon. “You can’t see the jacket,” Perino told me when I visited her office a few days before Thanksgiving. It’s reserved for club members, apparently.

Perino gave Gibbs a tour of her office shortly after Election Day. “Robert strikes me as a very calm person,” she said. “I try to be calm. People say I am calm. But I’m like a duck. Underneath, I’m paddling, paddling, paddling.”

Gibbs says he’s not nervous. “I don’t think nervous is the right word,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any preparation for it.”

One Comment
  1. jendeep permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:11 AM

    does anyone know what type of jacket is the flak jacket? i it a military jacket? a photog vest? thanx.

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