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White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pauses at the daily White House briefing. Thursday, Gibbs decided that "We won" was a good enough response to former President Bush's defense of Gitmo policy.
The daily care and feeding of the White House press corps is both an enviable and thankless task. On the one hand, it is one of the most prominent and sought-after gigs in Washington. On the other hand, the person in the job is inevitably going to face daily "gotcha" type questions -- some enterprising journalist looking to make his bones on a big scoop. And, of course, having to present news of what is always a rather ambitious and weighty agenda is a pressure-filled task.
On top of everything else, the person in that position must strive to present a happy -- or at least smiling -- face.
Gibbs, raised in the South, mostly has that garrulous, educated-but-good-old-boy personality. However, recently, there's a snide, almost passive-aggressive side emerging that may not serve his boss well.
Thursday, Gibbs' response to former President Bush's relatively mild defense of his decisions to detain terrorists at Gitmo was an abrupt, "We won." The full statement was: "I think we've had a debate about individual policies. We had that debate in particular – we kept score last November and we won."
This isn't the tone Gibbs should take -- for two reasons.
First, Bush has been holding his fire during the first six months of the Obama administration. Unlike Dick Cheney, Bush has said that President Obama "deserves my silence." While he veered from that slightly this week, it was in the context of responding to questions about his own decisions. Rather than just saying, smugly, that "we won," Gibbs could have reminded reporters that Bush himself declared late in his administration that he would have liked to close down the Guantanamo facility -- and there is now a broad discussion going on about how to fulfill that goal.
Secondly, in the United States, it doesn't matter if "we've had a debate about individual policies." Elections merely determine who will guide the nation for the next four years; they rarely "settle" anything. The debates continues. Indeed, Gibbs should note that actually the terms of the debate have changed since the election. Congressional Democrats who almost uniformly called for the closing of Gitmo during the campaign now balk at providing funds to transfer the detainees to U.S. prisons. So what, they didn't pay attention to the election results? Or is it more likely that they are paying attention to their own constituents who have serious problems with suspected terrorists coming to the homeland. Saying "We won" doesn't deal with that reality.
Meanwhile, Gibbs could also learn something from the former president, a stickler for promptness, a characteristic that extended to his press operation. Gibbs, however, is chronically late for his own briefing. Aside from being rude, it's a great way to make a tough job even harder. A rabid press corps gets much more agitated when it's morning "meal" is late. Keeping the media waiting is a great way to engender irritated feelings -- which eventually starts seeping into coverage.
Gibbs might need a timeout before responding to President Bush in the future -- and an accurate timepiece to get him to his briefings on time.