Political News

N.C. State grad tapped as Obama's press secretary

Posted November 22, 2008
Updated November 23, 2008

— Two of the top qualities Robert Gibbs brings to the job of White House press secretary aren't found on his resume: He won't flinch at telling it like it is to the next president or telling it like he thinks it ought to be to the media.

"This child was born talking and hasn't stopped yet," his father, Robert Coleman Gibbs, of Apex, told WRAL News.

The North Carolina State University political-science major has been at the side of President-elect Barack Obama since his Senate campaign in 2004. A Southerner and tough fighter, Gibbs has been a passionate defender of Obama who can virtually channel the Illinois senator's thoughts.

"I look forward to serving both the president-elect as he works to get our economy moving again and the press to get what they need to cover that and other important stories," Gibbs told The Associated Press on Saturday.

During the presidential campaign, Gibbs, 37, served as communications director and was among the few who could frankly tell Obama what needed to improve.

He didn't hesitate to tell the media when he thought they got it wrong, either. He fiercely guarded Obama's image.

"If he doesn't agree with something, he doesn't mind telling him. He is not a 'yes' man," Robert Coleman Gibbs said.

One critic called Gibbs "the bland face of brazenness" when he said Obama's decision to resign from his church amid the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was "a deeply personal decision, not a political decision."

Others were surprised when he called Fox News' Bill O'Reilly a "bully" and asked Sean Hannity, "Are you anti-Semitic?" in response to the TV commentator's questions about Obama's relationship to William Ayers, a 1960s radical.

A former roommate who worked with Gibbs on Capitol Hill said Gibbs has been a successful press secretary because he combines top-notch political skills and a quick wit.

"That's the reason the Washington press corps is going to relate well to him," the roommate, Shar Hendrick, told the AP recently.

Gibbs generally got along well with reporters covering the Obama campaign, but some complained that he ignored too many requests for information and guidance. That could become a problem in the hectic White House press corps unless he manages to delegate his workload deftly, some believe.

Gibbs was born in Auburn, Ala., where his parents worked for Auburn University. His mother, Nancy Gibbs, was active in the League of Women Voters and took her son with her to polling places and the local courthouse. Political discussions around the dinner table were often lively.

Despite his political future, it was sports that lured Gibbs to N.C. State, his father said.

"I think that is one of the reasons he went to N.C. State, because they have a good soccer team, if you want to know the truth," Robert Coleman Gibbs said.

Gibbs got his start in politics in 1991 as an intern for former Rep. Glen Browder, D-Ala. Gibbs' wife, Mary Catherine Gibbs, is an attorney in Alexandria, Va. They have a 5-year-old son.

Browder recently told AP that he quickly realized Gibbs was not just another college student looking to spend a few months in Washington. Gibbs' ability to make a quick study of complicated issues convinced the congressman to give him a permanent job.

"Robert had a special quality even back then," Browder said. "In retrospect, it was clear Robert was destined to make his mark."

After Browder's unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1996, Gibbs worked for several southern Democrats and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In 2004, he headed to Chicago to work in Obama's Senate campaign.

Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention that year sent his fame and popularity skyrocketing. Afterwards, Gibbs frequently told reporters and political associates that he and others around Obama kept expecting the popularity to ebb, but it never did.

Gibbs was constantly with Obama over the next two years as he began laying the groundwork for a presidential bid. Gibbs was among the first to recognize the political phenomenon Obama had become and the need to adapt and capitalize on the surging crowds he was drawing.

Along the way, Gibbs' parents said they could sense that the future also held great things for their son.

"I have realized how important it is – what he might become," Robert Coleman Gibbs said.

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