February 11th, 2011
10:25 AM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - It was 1:40 pm, January 22, 2009, when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs first stepped behind the podium in the James S. Brady briefing room to begin a two year joust with the press corps.
“How are you all?" The Alabama native said. “Nice to be here.”
He wasn’t a stranger. After all he’d been by the newly elected president’s side since Obama’s early run for the U.S. Senate.
But Gibbs was about to roll out a blunt, sarcastic and evasive style that would both entertain and frustrate reporters.
He danced deftly with phrases like “I shouldn’t get ahead of the president,” “I don’t want to prejudge,” and “I’m not a lawyer” (or any other expertise he was using to dodge a question).
All the while Gibbs enjoyed a powerful seat right next to the president’s ear.
He’s a close friend, one of my closest advisers and an effective advocate from the podium,” the president said in a recent written statement.
During a recent forum at George Washington University, Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary under President Bill Clinton, acknowledged the crucial role Gibbs played.
He said Gibbs “is instrumentally important, and was during the first two years to the president."
Yet that relationship can be inherently complicated.
“I think it is nearly impossible to be a decision maker and a key policy maker on behalf of the president, and simultaneously do the job that we have to do,” McCurry said.
But Gibbs, who lived in a world of mostly first-hand information, believed his dual roles gave him an advantage in dealing with the press.
And he reveled in one of Washington's most public platforms.
“I would not trade the worst days here for many of the best days at another job.”
But while he exuded confidence, Gibbs confessed he wasn’t always pleased with his performances.
Every night in the comfort of his home, he would pour over the transcripts of his briefings and think about what he could have done differently, he said.
What he never second guessed was his style, which he once compared to a jujitsu match.
Often abrasive humor was used to swat back a question, or just knock it out of the park.
Right after the Tea Party convention in Nashville last year, Gibbs handled a tough question on health care by poking fun at former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
She had used her hand as a cheat sheet during a speech at the convention, so Gibbs responded in kind and displayed his own “notes” on his palm. The room erupted in laughter.
It was just one moment in an ongoing one-man highlight reel for a spokesman who was chronically late for his daily briefings.
Gibbs once took a ringing cell phone away from a stunned reporter, right in the middle of a briefing.
He wore a hockey jersey when he lost a bet with his Canadian counterpart after the U.S. was defeated in the Winter Olympics.
And he hardly missed a beat when a persistent spider crawled and dangled its way around his nicely pressed suit during a briefing.
But it wasn’t all fun and games.
Gibbs would sometimes put his foot in his mouth...or even in a door.
First the mouth.
With questions about serious challenges in the mid-term elections, Gibbs was criticized for predicting his party would suffer losses, even as other Democrats were trying to deliver a more positive tone.
He also caught flak for referring to unhappy liberal Democrats as the “professional left.”
Now back to that door.
During a trip to India last year, attempts to keep American journalists out of a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh were met with a foot from Gibbs firmly planted and nearly crushed in a shutting door.
He argued with Indian security officials, used a few strong words, and threatened to pull President Obama from the meeting if the U.S. press were kept out. Both his foot and his persistence won that argument handily.
It was all part of a 24-7 job that put him in the stressful and sometimes bruising position of trying to explain the president's thinking on everything from the controversial stimulus package to the health care reform law that Republicans are still trying to repeal.
Waking up each morning at 4am, Gibbs was often hit with harsh headlines. He would "pick up the paper and groan," he said.
Finally last month he announced his decision to step down in order to "step back a little bit and recharge some."
The spokesman is moving on to become a Washington pundit but staying in Obama's inner circle as an outside adviser.
On Thursday night, Gibbs was busy cleaning out his office. Pictures were taken off the wall. Books were removed from shelves. Cardboard boxes were ready to be filled.
And Jay Carney, Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director, who had been quietly doing “simulated briefings,” was gearing up to take over for real on Monday.
As he counted down his final hours, Gibbs reflected on the job he's leaving behind.
“I’ve said a hundred times, well, probably 10,000 times, if you didn’t enjoy some element of this you’d do it for about three days and you would turn in your pass and hope no one ever found you again."
I'm not a mathematician, and I don't want to prejudge (sound familiar), but Gibbs did it for 752 days.
Now he’s handing his pass to Carney who has "three days" to decide whether he can handle the heat, or want to run to that place where "no one ever found you again."
White House producer Becky Brittain contributed to this report