The United States is facing its biggest financial crisis in ages. North Korea is blowing up nukes. Dick Cheney warns us of the "dangers that have not gone away." And there are still wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But over in the White House press briefing room, it’s a veritable laugh riot.
Whenever there’s laughter in the James S. Brady Briefing Room — by either the briefer or the briefed — the official White House stenographer indicates as much by inserting “(Laughter.)” into the transcript.
And in Robert Gibbs’ first four months as President Barack Obama’s press secretary, there have been more than 600 instances of “(Laughter.)” during his regular press briefings — an average of more than 10 laughs per day.
It’s a gaudy statistic — and one that puts his predecessors to shame.
Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s last press secretary, got all of 57 laughs in her first four months. Scott McClellan, another Bush press secretary, got just 66 laughs in his first four months.
Gibbs even bests the late Tony Snow, whose jocular performances — dubbed “The Tony Snow Show” by some — drew a relatively paltry 217 laughs during his first four months on the job.
Tim Graham, who watches for liberal press bias at the Media Research Center, says all the high times may be a sign of reporters’ political affinity with the Obama administration.
"It's possible that reporters just think Gibbs is much funnier than the Bush people," Graham said. "But I think this is another subliminal sign that reporters are much more comfortable with a spokesman that represents the hope and change they voted for."
The press-room hilarity hit its peak on May 1, when Obama made a surprise appearance in the briefing room to discuss his thoughts on a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. The
transcript indicates 30 instances of “(Laughter.).”
Among the highlights:
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to — I shouldn't be the spokesperson for accumulated wisdom. (Laughter.)
Q: Did you know he was coming?
MR. GIBBS: Did I know he was coming? No, I didn't know he was coming. No, we would have put a fancy seal up and everything.
Q: No offense, but you're kind of a let-down now. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Well, you guys are, too. (Laughter.)
There have been a few days of near-laughterlessness — on March 10 and March 27, there were just two instances of “(Laughter.)” — but no Gibbs press briefing has been entirely devoid of giggles.
Told of his heady numbers, Gibbs said: “I have always hoped that we could do our important jobs and still have a little fun doing it.”
CBS News’ Mark Knoller, who has covered the White House since Gerald Ford was president, said Gibbs is “more inclined to make a wisecrack than any press secretary” he’s covered. “He's at ease at the lectern, understands the press and is willing to offer a quip at our expense or his own,” Knoller said.
So is the Obama press briefing room light-hearted where the Bush room was contentious?
“Not really,” Knoller says. “But there are members of the news media, myself among them, even more willing to offer an occasional wisecrack when the occasion is right, and sometimes when it isn't. And Gibbs is OK with that. Jokes aside, we get business done.”
Some of the spike in laughter can be attributed to the newness of the Obama administration. After eight years, reporters had a pretty good idea of the storylines they’d be getting — or wouldn’t — from Bush administration briefings. And toward the end, the briefings lost some of their luster as top reporters left to cover the 2008 campaign.
Now, all attention is focused on the new administration, and reporters do their best not to miss the daily briefings. Some of the cable networks have made a regular habit of interrupting normal programming
to carry the life feed of Gibbs at work.
But reporters say that the laughs have less to do with Obama and more to do with Gibbs.
“I think it has more to do with the interest in Obama than in his spokesman,” says Human Events’ Joe Gizzi, who created a bit of a laugh storm on May 13 when his cell phone rang during a White House
briefing, prompting Gibbs to jokingly confiscate it. “There’s always fascination with a new president. That said, there is a lot of laughter out there, and a part of it is because of Gibbs — he has a great sense of humor. In addition, he has a bigger audience to play to than did Snow or Perino, thanks to the new administration. This press room is always crowded and, this time, the entertainer plays to a bigger audience.”