If you are the press secretary to the President of the United States, the main thing to avoid is becoming the story yourself. You are a “spokesman.” A mouthpiece. And as such, it’s best to keep your size elevens out of your mouth.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs — immortalized as “Gibbsy” on the Teleprompter of the U.S. blog — has stepped in it big time. He dismissed President Obama’s interview, soon to be published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. “Not that many people read the New York Times Magazine,” Gibbs said in an off-handed way.
What? I’m reminded of baseball manager Casey Stengel’s plaintive cry as he looked down the bench in the New York Mets’ dugout: “Doesn’t anybody here know how to play this game?” How in the world can the spokesman for a liberal administration so diss the New York Times?
Now, in fairness, we conservatives don’t genuflect when someone invokes the Gray Lady as the ultimate authority in all matters temporal and spiritual. It has been a long time since the Times was considered the indispensable source, the newspaper of record for the United States. We know that the bias of the Times is impervious to facts.
We remember the jokes about how Fidel Castro said “I got my job through the New York Times.” We also remember the not-so-funny fact that the Times‘ Man-in-Moscow, Walter Duranty, managed to overlook the deaths of five million Ukrainians as a direct result of Stalin’s enforced famine in the 1930s. Duranty still holds his Pulitzer Prize for history’s most heinous cover-up.
But for Robert Gibbs, speaking in the White House for the most liberal administration since the days of FDR to casually give the back of his hand to the Times‘ readership is unbelievably unprofessional.
John F. Kennedy had his own problems with the press. Privately, he threw an issue of the old New York Herald Tribune across the Oval Office in disgust. That paper was considered the voice of the Republican Establishment in those days.
On the campaign stump, however, Kennedy was careful in how he talked about the press. He even tweaked his 1960 opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, when the very influential Wall Street Journal criticized the economic arguments of the GOP nominee. “That’s like L’Osservotore Romano criticizing the Pope,” Kennedy merrily jabbed.
In that year Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a major issue in the presidential campaign. For Kennedy to cheekily needle Nixon was typical of his special wit and style. But when he poked a little bit of fun at the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper — a house organ that would never criticize a Pope — he disarmed many of his own critics. It’s a major reason why Kennedy overcame biases and won that hotly contested election.
Now, fifty years after JFK, we have the White House minimizing the importance of the New York Times‘ readership. It’s as if the Pope were to criticize L’Osservatore Romano!
Just a note to the Press Secretary: The Times readership is surely not what it once was, but it remains the go-to source for tens of thousands of the aging lords of liberalism. These are the people you need if you have any hope of avoiding an “avalanche” next month. These people are the wealthiest and most powerful people in your own base.
The President can give all the interviews he wants to Rolling Stone and other drug-friendly outlets. But if he wants people to open their checkbooks instead of their rolling papers, you’d better not knock your hometown newspaper.
It’s certainly been interesting the past few weeks to see key members of the President’s economic and national security teams go over the side. I have some friendly advice for Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: Freshen up your résumé. Leave out the puff profile on yourself from the December, 2008, New York Times, and make a quick exit for the Democratic National Committee. Your gaffes will never be noticed there.