It’s hardly news that over the past half-century the city of Washington, once described by John F. Kennedy as a community “with Northern charm and Southern efficiency,” has been transformed — some would say transmogrified — into Hollywood East.
George Clooney sightings on Capitol Hill, Tom Cruise eating peanuts in the owner’s box at Redskin games — but that’s only the half of it. What’s really changed, thanks to the impact of television and cable news, is the ga-ga elevation of mere political functionaries into five-star celebrities.
Reverse reel, back to the future: It’s February, 2009, a mere month after the inauguration of the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama. Most Americans know who his Vice President is —Joe Biden. An even greater number know who his Secretary of State is — Hillary Clinton. A large number can even identify the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. But who, tell me, is this fellow Robert Gibbs? If one out of a hundred Americans could identify him two years ago, I’d have been surprised.
Why? A story told about Gene McCarthy puts some perspective on the importance of the job Gibbs held in Obama’s presidential campaign. Asked by a reporter whether the resignation of his press secretary would hurt his campaign for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, McCarthy replied, “No, but if my driver ever quit, that would be a setback.”
Fast forward now to February 11, 2011, little more than twenty-four months after Gibbs was named White House press secretary, a job he held not only briefly but with all the charisma of Scott McClellan and charm of Ari Fleischer. It’s Gibbs’ last press briefing, ordinarily a perfunctory transaction of little interest beyond the White House press room. And yet…
Not one, not two, but all three cable news networks thought the event so important they cut away from Mideast riot coverage to present it live — a celebrity trifecta. And more: Gibbs’ boss, never known to pass up an opportunity for television face time, shows up for a special presentation: a framed tie that Gibbs once lent to Obama, an historical artifact sure to end up in the Smithsonian one day, alongside Bill Clinton’s boxer shorts and LeBron James’ sweatsocks.
And how did the retiree-of-honor take all this attention? Humbly? With the modest diffidence of a public servant who felt privileged to have worked in the White House where once Lincoln labored and slept?
If you think that, you’re unacquainted with the arrogant sense of entitlement that accompanies the Tinseltown celebration of political functionaries in today’s Washington. Here, from the Washington Post’s coverage of Gibbs’ farewell conference, an example of same:
“Invited by Politico’s Carol Lee to reflect on his relationship with the press corps, Gibbs had a thoughtful response: ‘Soon, somebody’s going to pay me a lot of money to give that assessment, and I look forward to sharing that with them.’”
A lot of money: So that’s what it’s all about! Let’s see now, there’ll be a lecture tour for six months, delivering bromidic political insights suitable for People magazine sidebars, followed by that all-revealing White House memoir (Does Michelle sneak late-night Twinkies? Did the President inhale while smoking? ).
All done, of course, with the author doing his duty on behalf of Obama’s 2012 campaign, in which, celebrity not being all there is in life, he might land a really important job — as the President’s driver.