A camp counselor in Hell? Or a “dysfunctional family with too much alcohol?” The campaign trail is maddening — and infantilizing — either way! A brief defense of the traveling press secretary.
Illustration by BuzzFeed's John Gara
After a bumpy foreign trip during which he told reporters to "kiss my ass," Mitt Romney's combative, foul-mouthed — and ultimately endearing — traveling press secretary is taking some time off the trail, ABC News reported yesterday. We will miss him.
As the foot soldier sent to the front lines in an ever-escalating battle between a no-access campaign and a frustrated traveling press corps, Gorka has earned something of a bum rap. He has, at times, been portrayed as a symbol for Romney's aloofness with the media — a compulsive question-dodger who manipulates, spins, and deflects to keep the the media on-message.
But if Gorka has seemed incapable of engaging a reporter's question that doesn't include the word "unemployment," it's likely by Boston's design. Firmly outside the candidate's inner-circle, Gorka is privy to little inside information, and even if he was, he wouldn't share it, since he rarely goes on the record.
The problem isn't the man, but the job. Gorka is a camp counselor in Hell. The traveling press secretary is "in charge of a more or less implacable group of people who don't want to be there, and who are mad at you because they're bored," recalled Hillary Clinton's man in the job in 2008, Jay Carson.
Still, Gorka has performed his duties with a certain measure of charm, if we do say ourselves. Everywhere the press has gone, he's gone, dolling out sub sandwiches at the front of the bus, ushering reporters through Secret Service sweeps, and fielding hotel requests from media members who are trying to stock up on Marriott points. He spends months at a time away from his home in New Jersey, where he left a girlfriend, a car, and a storage container that he lives out of when he's back. And he does it all for around $86,000 a year, according to FEC reports. A decently-skilled traveling salesman could make more.
Reached for comment in New Jersey, Gorka told us he was, "looking forward to coming back" but admitted that "it's been nice to sleep a little bit and say hi to the girlfriend."
“It’s one of the toughest jobs on the campaign," said one Romney aide. "You're around the same people every hour of every day for months. Obviously that will fray neves."
Indeed, Gorka has saved some of his saltier retorts for heated on-the-bus (and off-the-record) arguments with members of the press. "Kiss my ass" is G-rated stuff for the aide, who cut his teeth on the McCain '08 campaign — where one fellow alum told BuzzFeed, "It was weird if you weren't cursing at reporters." (More recently, he served as a New Jersey GOP spokesman, working closely with Gov. Chris Christie, no stranger to confrontation.)
At the same time, he's often displayed a certain fondness for the press corps, serving as our ambassador to the candidate's bus.
"You're one of the few voices... arguing for those journalists' interests within the campaign," said Carson, who was also the inspiration for a glamorous fantasy of the job: Ryan Gosling's character in The Ides of March. "A lot of the time you feel like a man without a country."
Early on in the campaign, traveling reporters were downright chummy with the press aide. We learned quickly that he wouldn't be a valuable source — dubbing his non-answers to our questions "getting Gorka'd" — but we found his quirks endearing, from his "Seinfeld Quote of the Day" tweets, to his Quixotic support for the perpetually-terrible Cleveland Indians. On his first day on the job, he distributed Domino's pizza for the whole crew. In Florida, some in the traveling press corps returned the favor by throwing a fake birthday party for him, an affair that occupied real estate in Politico's Playbook on two separate days.
But as the campaign slog wore on and access to the candidate faded even further, Gorka was increasingly thrown to wolves when Romney's aides had decided not to tell the press anything. In June, when media pressure grew for Romney to go into the specifics of his immigration plan, the campaign sent Gorka to the press section in the back of the charter plane, armed with literally one talking point that he was forced to repeat over and over as reporters grew increasingly feisty. Footage of the impromptu press conference went viral in the political class, and liberal cable news hosts used him as the face of the campaign's evasive nature.
But reporters shouldn't shoot the humble messenger, and though Gorka doesn't have a lot of fans in the press corps, we're not entirely alone either.
"I like Gorka," said Reuters campaign correspondent Sam Youngman. "He can take a punch as well as he can throw one, and he knows how to clock out at the end of the day. There is always tension between campaigns and the press. It is obviously exacerbated when access is all but nil. Best I can tell, what happened was inevitable."
Perhaps Gorka himself described his relationship with the press corps best last June, following the last event on a five-day swing state bus tour that had its own share of hiccups along the way. Chatting with reporters as they packed up their things and made their way back to the bus, Gorka mused, "This is like a dysfunctional family with too much alcohol."