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Robert Gibbs shows 'Morning Joe' Scarborough the famous White House flak jacket

February 24, 2009 |  7:57 am

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs takes questions from the news media

The flak jacket has been in the closet of the White House press secretary since Gerald Ford's spokesman, Ron Nessen, placed it there as he was leaving office in January 1977. A former war correspondent in Vietnam, Nessen also left a note to his successor, Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell.

Ever since, every White House press secretary has left the jacket in the closet along with a note to his or her successor and, according to legend, all the notes are still there, wrapped in a ribbon. Only the small circle of men and women who have held the post in the last 32 years know what the notes say, but we imagine a common theme might be the instruction to duck incoming fire from reporters hurling tough questions at the podium.

This morning, giving a tour of his office to MSNBC's "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declined to disclose the contents of the note from Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino, although he did say he's saving the jacket for a day when the questions get really rough.

"I have not had the occasion yet to put it on before my briefing," Gibbs said. "Maybe that time is coming."

The press secretary said he met with some of his predecessors before taking the job, and they all had the same advice: "Do not take any question that anybody asks personally." He added:

They've got a job to do. I've got a job to do, which helps both present what the president's doing but also to represent them in this building. So it's a little bit of a dual job. I represent them in this building. As people like to tell me, my office is about equidistant from the Oval Office down there and the briefing room down there. The press secretary's positioned between the press and the president.

Mika discovered that Gibbs keeps a collection of ties in his office, the better to brief in. Joe discovered that he had put up only one photo so far in his office -- of former N.Y. Sen. Robert Kennedy taking a solitary walk on the beach with his dog.

Access  always has been the crucible of press secretaries, who tend to be derided by reporters when they are shut out of policy decisions and distrusted by White House insiders when they are allowed in the meetings.

Gibbs said he felt fortunate that he has a good relationship with President Obama. "I'm lucky. I have a great relationship with him. I talk to him often." When Gibbs is at the podium, he said, reporters know that "I have not only his confidence but I know what he's thinking."

As for seeing his wife and 5-year-old son, Gibbs said time with family is rare. He gets to the White House every day at 6 a.m., to read the papers and a thick phone-book-sized report in which the staff tries to anticipate questions from reporters on everything from the war in Afghanistan to the economic meltdown.

But, he said, he did steal a few hours last weekend to take his son to the Air & Space Museum, which was a big hit.

-- Johanna Neuman

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