Last night (Thursday, October 20, 2011), former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave the sixth annual Voices & Visions Lecture at Saint Xavier University on Chicago’s south side. The series is a nice opportunity for members of the SXU and local communities to hear from a wide range of fascinating public figures; past speakers include Kofi Annan, Elie Wiesel and Colin Powell.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time watching hours upon hours of CNN, I became a big fan of Gibbs’ style of dealing with reporters during White House news briefings. He brought some sass, and I like that. At SXU, he brought both sass and an approachable conversation tone to the podium.
Gibbs’ lecture was advertised as “The Run to 2012,” though in retrospect, I would call that somewhat of a misnomer. “The Run to 2012” implies a thinly—if that—cloaked campaign-type speech, but Gibbs covered a range of topics, beginning with a couple of anecdotes from his time as Press Secretary, opening unflattering pieces of non-fan mail. He relayed how in one instance he received a post card with the inscription: “If you lost 40 pounds, you would be a skinny buffoon.” Gibbs apparently kept that post card on his desk for the rest of his days at the White House, as a reminder to stay humble and focused on the job (he also noted that since leaving the White House’s endless supply of red, white and blue M&Ms, he is 15 pounds closer to being a “skinny buffoon”).
Gibbs went on to discuss crisis control at the White House, focusing on the period of the Gulf Oil Spill, illustrating the wholly unexpected events and subsequent bodies of knowledge that have to be dealt with as Press Secretary. Gibbs joked that he now knows more about off-shore drilling and leak suppression methods than anyone in the world who does not derive the majority of their income from the oil industry. He recalled the day a robotic camera knocked the original top hat off the leakage site, and the tense briefing he had with President Obama, who then informed Gibbs that from there on out, his job was to make sure such a blunder did not happen again.
He also discussed the campaign process in regards to both his own experience working with Obama (who was “a terrible candidate” at the beginning of his run) and the current muddled Republican field. During that portion, he referred to Mitt Romney as being the “safe date to the prom,” who has not yet seen a wave of popularity, but has stolidly stood at 23% while Michele Bachmanna, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have each experienced their moments in the sun. He also expressed his surprise that there have been so many late-comers to the candidate pool, and reflected on how difficult it is to learn the rhythm of a presidential campaign on the go.
One recurrent theme throughout Gibbs’ speech was his earlier interaction with SXU students. Before the public lecture, students were invited to a Q&A session. Gibbs applauded students for their hard-hitting questions geared towards current events and policy debates, rather than fluffy questions regarding behind-the-scenes life in Washington. He remarked that the inquisitive, engaged and direct questions typical of students often get more to the point than those of the reporters with whom he has worked for years.
After the public lecture, Gibbs took a few additional questions submitted by the community and presented by student leaders. The last queried how to get young people excited about, involved in and keep them from being jaded by the political process, providing Gibbs with a perfect lead-in to my own favorite rant topic: Given the opportunity, why wouldn’t you vote?
Without giving in to platitudes about civic duty or Barack Obama’s campaign’s efforts to connect with young voters, Gibbs answered by talking about some of the people who benefit from voter apathy—across demographics, but especially amongst young citizens. He referred to them as the people who work in Washington, or Springfield, or any other political center. They advocate for the highest bidder, they wear $2,000 suits, and they are really happy that “instead of watching CNN, you are watching Sportscenter”—they’re called lobbyists.
People might think that by not participating, they are removing themselves from having any effect whatsoever on the process. They might also think they are sending a message about disillusionment with the political system.
But, the system (despite everything we have been through over the past few months) never stops, and proactive, or apathetic each active or inactive voter is still having an effect on the outcome. So what possible excuse is there not to take advantage of your right and get involved in the process?
To illustrate, Gibbs recounted a story from his days as a college intern in Washington. The program includes regular presentations by important Washington personalities (senators, representatives, etc). During the first week of his internship, Gibbs attended a lecture at which the speaker asked everyone who had voted in the recent cycle to raise their hands. Then she asked everyone who had not voted to raise their hands. Then she said, “If you didn’t vote, then you can’t bitch.”
You should go vote next time you have the chance.
Robert Gibbs did a great job of addressing a wide array of topics, appealing to audience members coming to the lecture from every angle.
Also, I got to meet Gibbs in person at the VIP reception following the lecture and hopefully the picture I had taken with him did not come out horribly and I will be able to post it without shame as soon as I get my hands on it. When we spoke briefly at the reception, Gibbs again complimented administrators on how sharp the SXU students were at their earlier Q&A, providing a great reflection on the institution.
Coverage of Past SXU Events
Hand Held: Attending the Chicago Premiere of a New Documentary by Don Hahn and Michael Carroll