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An Appropriate Assessment of the Spicer Era

SpicerJack Shafer’s column in Politico Magazine asks:  Should You Feel Sorry for Sean Spicer?

The sub-title correctly answers:  Nope. Absolutely not.

The White House attracts all manner of toadies, suckups and flatterers seeking the president’s favor, but never did any staffer demean, degrade and humble himself to the chief executive the way outgoing press secretary Sean Spicer did. Abandoning the arts of both persuasion and elision that have served previous prevaricating press secretaries so well, Spicer flung barb-tongued lies in the service of President Donald Trump.

Being Press Secretary is a hard job.  Invariably you have to go out in front of the press and try to answer questions without always actually answering them. There are often good reasons to behave in such a manner, as it is undesirable, for example, to talk about ongoing foreign policy actions.  And, quite frankly, negotiations and determinations about domestic policy can be ever-changing in a way that makes direct answers impossible or problematic.

I have watched Press Secretaries for decades knowing full well that they were often not being candid about all things (and, often, perhaps not even knowing the answers being sought).  I have seen them dissemble about presidential actions.  I have certainly heard responses that I was pretty sure weren’t true (often by omission, dissembling, or word games).  What I do not recall is the volume of  believe, not your lying eyes type of behavior we saw from Spencer.  Understand, that is ultimately the President’s fault, and it will not get better with Spicer’s exit.  But Spicer, as a person, has to own what Shafer said in the paragraph quoted above–he sold his soul for that job.

Spicer wasn’t born a liar. In an oddly predictive utterance, he volunteered in January as he boarded the Trump White House that he never liedbecause, among other things, lying destroyed credibility and rendered a spokesman useless. If he was being honest about not being a liar, his streak ended with that first press briefing, in which he took no questions and made his ridiculous claims about the inauguration crowd size.

The entire column is a list of the problematic statements and defense provided by Spicer to the press.

Of course, as noted above, this it ultimately about the President and it is likely to get worse because this White House does not respect the role of the press in our system.

On that last note, I know that many believe that the press is the “opposition” and that it is so rife with “liberal bias” that it can be seen as the “enemy,” but this is a dangerous position to the very fabric of our governing system and to free civil society.  There is plenty of room for criticism of the press, and certainly of specific stories, reporters, and outlets.  But to denigrate the ability of the press to question the executive branch is a serious problem and is an authoritarian move, not a democratic one.

If one wants to criticize some member of the press, then bring the facts, don’t make up alternative ones because that makes you feel better.  Ultimately this is about reality v. fantasy.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    I think it is absolutely clear that Trump corrupts and degrades anyone who comes in contact with him. Spicer is just one person. You’re seeing the corruption in the evangelical right, in the Republican political class, even the legitimate conservative press. Quite frankly, this is not going to end well.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  2. Andre Kenji says:

    My problem is that Spicer should at least have waited for the Season Premire of Saturday Night Live.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  3. Terrye Cravens says:

    He is just one more Republican who squandered his credibility in a vain attempt to curry favor with King Donald.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. steve says:

    I think I might miss him. He at least had enough decency to often look uncomfortable as he lied. Huckabee seems very comfortable saying anything to help Trump.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  5. James Pearce says:

    Why are we still talking about this guy?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. CSK says:

    @Scott:

    I’m not sure if Trump corrupted fundamentalist Protestants so much as his presence on the national stage exposed their pre-existing corruption and hypocrisy.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0

  7. CSK says:

    @James Pearce:

    He’s not leaving–or at least, that’s what he said yesterday–until the end of August. So he’s still a factor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. @James Pearce: Because he is emblematic of a broader problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    He made his deal with the devil. Now he gets to enjoy the consequences.

    My biggest question at this point is who SNL is going to find to skewer Huckleberry – because you know they will

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. James Pearce says:

    @CSK:

    So he’s still a factor.

    Spicer has been more of an embarrassment than a factor.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Because he is emblematic of a broader problem.

    Which one?

    My thing about Spicer is that he was literally a PR guy. His job was to stand up there and spin, spin, spin. It was ridiculous to watch him do it, but considering who he was spinning for –a dude who insists his wig is really his hair– it wasn’t that ridiculous.

    SNL was funny, but I’m sorry, I’m not popping the popcorn. The Trump administration is not entertaining. Sean Spicer is not comedy. This is deadly serious business and focusing on the PR guy seems, well, superficial.

    Which, to me, is emblematic of a larger problem, too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. CSK says:

    @James Pearce:

    The fact that he’s an embarrassment makes him a factor. He was–and still is–the front man for a disaster.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. CSK says:

    Just as an aside, Trump is raving like a maniac on Twitter about Crooked Hillary and her 33,000 deleted emails.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. @James Pearce:

    Which one?

    Have you been on an extended holiday off world since November?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. James Pearce says:

    @CSK:

    The fact that he’s an embarrassment makes him a factor. He was–and still is–the front man for a disaster.

    Disaster, I’ll grant….but front man? More like a pawn, wouldn’t you say?

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Have you been on an extended holiday off world since November?

    I wish….

    But in an administration rife with problems, it would be useful to know which one is illustrated by the Spicer story. Big picture, the guy seems like a footnote to a footnote.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. CSK says:

    @James Pearce:

    He’s the front man because he is, or was, the official spokesperson for the administration. And it’s possible to be a pawn and a front man simultaneously.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. James Pearce says:

    @CSK:

    he is, or was, the official spokesperson for the administration

    That role seems to have been replaced by Trump’s Twitter feed…

    But even then, the “official spokesperson” of any organization is going to be a powerless hireling by definition. Are we confusing his front-facing position for an important position?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @CSK: In the circles in which I have traveled, there is a lot of talk about “conquering the nation for Jesus.” I guess if you can’t conquer it for Jesus, conquering it for yourselves is a close second. (I wouldn’t think that would be correct, but I can’t grok it anymore.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Mr. Prosser says:

    @CSK: “Oh, Paulie, uh, Sean-Boy, won’t see him no more.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. CSK says:

    @James Pearce:

    I’m not confusing anything with anything. Spicer was the White House press secretary for six months. As with all presidential press secretaries, he was/is the official conduit from the Oval Office to the press to the public. If you choose to regard that as an inconsequential or insignificant role, be my guest. The vast majority of people seem to feel otherwise.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  20. Joe says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    My biggest question at this point is who SNL is going to find to skewer Huckleberry – because you know they will

    The beauty of it is that they can still use Melissa McCarthy!

    I read this somewhere: Every time now someone quits the Trump team, I expect to see a group of Oompa Loompas come out and sing a song about the evils of greed and narcissism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Pearce: If you’re tired of it, why are you here?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Pearce:

    But in an administration rife with problems, it would be useful to know which one is illustrated by the Spicer story.

    He blatantly lies… and 47% of the American electorate either accepts them at face value, or makes excuses for them. Is it clear now?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. CSK says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re doing it for Jesus, you can convince yourself of anything.

    @Mr. Prosser:

    Bannon probably took the cannoli.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. DrDaveT says:

    @James Pearce:

    The Trump administration is not entertaining. Sean Spicer is not comedy.

    That is certainly the Trump administration’s position, yes.

    Personally, I feel that ridicule and contempt are more effective, and more productive in the long run, than actually pretending that this is a real administration that should be treated seriously. Trump brushes off criticism; he is incapacitated by mockery.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  25. James Pearce says:

    @CSK:

    If you choose to regard that as an inconsequential or insignificant role, be my guest.

    I didn’t choose to make the press secretary an inconsequential or insignificant role. Donald Trump did.
    @OzarkHillbilly:

    He blatantly lies… and 47% of the American electorate either accepts them at face value, or makes excuses for them.

    Yeah, that’s pretty sad. But Spicer was on the job for less than a year.
    @DrDaveT:

    Trump brushes off criticism; he is incapacitated by mockery.

    I don’t think so. I think the mockery is his motivation. It fuels him. I think he sat there, taking shit at the correspondent’s dinner, the Meatloaf and Gary Busey jokes, and he went, “Oh yeah, well F you.” And look at him now.

    I mean, I’m not saying don’t make fun of him. He is a ridiculous figure. But he’s also president of the United States now, not just some TV clown.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  26. @James Pearce: He is emblematic of this administration’s lack of fidelity with the truth. He was a willing participant on this administration’s assault on the free press. He is also a clear example of this president’s corrupting influence on the GOP and the executive branch.

    Those are three good reasons why this is more than a “meh” story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  27. tarylcabot says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I’m presuming that it will be the same actress they used in the “my mother was a southern hamburger” skit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. James Pearce says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Those are three good reasons why this is more than a “meh” story.

    Sure, those are great reasons, but here’s one for the “mehs:” What about the next guy? He’s going to be any different? The names change, but the game stays the same.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  29. Bob@Younsgtown says:

    OT, but this from Kaiser Health News:

    The official rules keeper in the Senate Friday tossed a bucket of cold water on the Senate Republican health bill by advising that major parts of the bill cannot be passed with a simple majority, but rather would require 60 votes. Republicans hold only 52 seats in the Senate.

    Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough said that a super-majority is needed for the temporary defunding of Planned Parenthood, abortion coverage restrictions to health plans purchased with tax credits and the requirement that people with breaks in coverage wait six months before they can purchase new plans.

    Read Here:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  30. JohnMcC says:

    Returning to Mr Spicer’s plight but without appropriate seriousness he always seemed to me to be the 21st century evolution of what Tom Wolfe called “Mau-Mau-ing the Flak Catchers”. The picture you should take away is that in the ’60s the corporate PR guy was catching hell from the attendees at press conferences and stock-holder events because Black Panthers and Radical Hippies had learned to infiltrate those gatherings.

    In this era the lion eating the back-end of the PR guy is the boss in the Oval Office

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. Argon says:

    Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse (just kidding), up walks Scaramucci who says, “Hold my beer a minute.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. Ben Wolf says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    He blatantly lies… and 47% of the American electorate either accepts them at face value, or makes excuses for them. Is it clear now?

    That description could be made of any press secretary to any president in my lifetime. No, it isn’t really clear why some of us continue to focus on a man and a position that are fundamentally irrelevant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  33. Davebo says:

    Give me a break. Trump didn’t corrupt Spicer.

    He’s been a lying scumbag for decades and done quite well with it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Pearce:

    But Spicer was on the job for less than a year.

    And it’s not going to change with SHS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    That description could be made of any press secretary to any president in my lifetime.

    No, it doesn’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  36. Barry says:

    @CSK: “I’m not sure if Trump corrupted fundamentalist Protestants so much as his presence on the national stage exposed their pre-existing corruption and hypocrisy.”

    Seconded. IMHO, what’s happening is that there’s less of a check on people’s extremes. The people joining Trump are corrupt motherf*ckers from the start.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  37. Barry says:

    @James Pearce: “Sure, those are great reasons, but here’s one for the “mehs:” What about the next guy? He’s going to be any different? The names change, but the game stays the same.”

    I don’t know about where you are, but here it’s great weather. Please take a walk.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  38. @Davebo: @Barry: My point about corruption isn’t the notion of the angels becoming devils as much as the notion of an influence making things even worse.

    And look: Spicer let himself be debased–from day one. So it is not that I am saying he had not agency, he did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  39. And if we really want an answer to why we are talking about him, it is because this is fundamentally a news reaction blog and his quitting was fairly big news this week. And, as a long-time blogger I will note that it is always amusing to a degree that people will comment on a story to ask why the story is being discussed, but people only do that if they at least have an opinion on the story (which is what drove the blog post in the first place).

    I would note that I know when people really don’t care about a story because no one comments. 😉

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  40. Tyrell says:

    He seems like a nice person.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  41. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell: Sure, if you like pathological liars.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  42. SKI says:

    @Davebo:

    He’s been a lying scumbag for decades and done quite well with it.
    Decades may be a bit strong. I knew Sean more than 25 years ago – since freshman orientation in college – and the lying part of your description was not what he was know as. Absolutely considered scummy and kinda gross but not a huge liar.

    David Bry, Sean’s roommate and now writer for the Guardian, had a pretty good primer on what Sean was like then.

    TCV: And so would you say he was well-known on campus? Well-liked?

    DB: Um, no. Not well-liked. Not like hated. How can I describe Sean Spicer? Because he was kind of an interesting guy. He was very into, like, always having a sense of humor, and funny, and laughing and chatty. And that was something that was, you know, kind of pleasant about him. But he wasn’t so good at it. And he wasn’t very popular, I would say—he was like, he would walk into the room and everyone would kind of go: “Ugh, Spicer.” But he was aware of that, and so then would like, play with it, so he’d be like: “Hey, come on guys! It’s just me! Come on, let’s have a beer; we love each other! Yeah, come on—oh, I know you don’t like me, but that’s just because you don’t know me!” He’d put his arm around you, and kind of be like, “come on!” you know? And so it was this very interesting combination of characteristics, where you could tell he really wanted to be liked; he tried a little too hard. He brought—you know, we had this thing freshman year during orientation where you were supposed to bring one item that describes yourself, you know, that if you would bring to put in a museum about yourself it would let them know about yourself, and I remember he brought his fake I.D. And he said, “Yeah, this is my fake I.D., and it says a lot about me because I really like to drink beer.”

    TCV: Okay.

    DB: And he kind of got that silence in reaction, too, and everyone was kind of like, “oh, god.” And so that sort of describes him pretty well, I think. But, you know what? I don’t wanna like—it’s weird; you think back to the way people were, and he was kind of a tool, but like, man, I certainly was a jerk in lots of ways, too. I don’t particularly like the person that I was when I think about being 18 years old, so I wanna give people a break, you know? I never thought he was like a bad, evil, hurtful person. He was, like I say, kind of a clown.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0