His briefings were a television show that the whole country could watch together.
They said appointment television didn’t exist anymore. They said our entertainment landscape was too fractured for that.
“You’ll never have another water-cooler moment,” they said. They took a long drag on a cigarette, squinted at the horizon. Dust swirled somewhere in the distance. “Must-see TV is dead.”
But they didn’t know what was coming. They didn’t know about Sean Spicer.
Sean Spicer served as White House press secretary for 187 days. In his short, spectacular hot mess of a tenure, he became the breakout television star of 2017.
From his illustrious first outing on January 21, when he was still technically part of a transition team — “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” — to his resignation six months and one day later, Spicer did something that all those Hollywood liberals said nobody could do anymore: He created a television show that the whole country could watch together.
Part car wreck, part nightmare improv show, part hostage video, the Spicer briefings, for the top half of 2017, made C-SPAN as riveting as HBO. The plot was incoherent, the dialogue absurd. Spicer regularly reacted to straightforward questions by sputtering and stalling out like a used Toyota Camry. Still, no primetime offering delivered quite the tragicomedy that came in a Spicer afternoon showing, a real-time portrayal of a man simultaneously high on power and obviously in peril; you got the feeling POTUS might pink-slip the man live, at any time, if only for the ratings.
On January 22, just a day after his widely mocked and objectively wrong insistence that more people attended and watched Trump’s inauguration than any other in American history, Spicer clarified: “Ahh, yes. I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” It was only his second day on the job, but it may have been Spicer’s most influential briefing, for it was this bizarre assertion that objective truth was a matter of opinion that Kellyanne Conway was defending when she coined the now-infamous Orwellian turn of phrase “alternative facts.”
One of the most riveting Spicer performances came in his condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons: “Someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t even sink to the, to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. Given the immediate opportunity to clarify, he assured everyone that, obviously, he knew that Hitler used chemical weapons in “Holocaust centers.” (Spicer, presumably, meant to say “concentration camps.”) But, Spicer went on, this al-Assad deal was a completely different situation because Assad “went into towns, dropped them down onto innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so, the use of it.”
Perhaps taking the whole “adversarial press” thing a bit further than necessary, Spicer was often hostile to the media he was charged to inform. In an effort to avoid facing journalists inquiring about the sudden firing of F.B.I. director James Comey, Spicer hid among the bushes on the White House grounds.
His unhinged displays of devotion to the president made him seem, at times, like a hopped-up stage mom on Toddlers and Tiaras, like when he insisted that Trump’s “covfefe” tweet was not a typo but a message only a select few could comprehend: “The president, and a small group of people, know exactly what he meant.”
Spicer wasn’t beholden to the norms that held back press secretaries of yore. Like words, for instance. Why only use the ones we already have? What is the alphabet if not a Scrabble set from God that the more innovative among us can futz with at will? Why say “press office” when you can say “fress office”? Is “lasterday” really so different from “yesterday”? Must we call our planet a “globe” instead of a “grobe”? A viewer may wonder, “What is ‘inimpulintation’?” To this, Spicer would counter, what isn’t inimpulination?
Like any good entertainment industrial complex, Spicer starred not only in his own series but inadvertently launched several successful spinoffs. Melissa McCarthy’s ingenious impression of Spicer on Saturday Night Live, which she debuted on February 4, can surely take some credit for SNL’s astonishingly high ratings this season. (Spicer, as ever, was good-humored about the portrayal: “It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, or silly, or malicious.”)
And Spicer’s foibles behind the podium — aided and abetted by Trump’s tweets, handshakes, bans, non-bans, and so on — provided endless fodder for late night hosts, boosting the once-floundering Stephen Colbert to the number one spot in late night (taking the place of hair-fluffer Jimmy Fallon) and giving the sometimes-struggling Trevor Noah some of his finest Daily Show material to date.
As any savvy television celebrity is wont to do, Spicer worried about overexposure. On April 7, in West Palm Beach, he instructed that cameras be turned off before the briefing began. And though he reportedly hoped to last a year in the job, Spicer barely made it past the halfway mark before bailing. He jumped ship after expressing to Trump his extreme disapproval of the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci to White House communications director. Trump went ahead and gave Scaramucci the job, asking Spicer to stay on as Scaramucci’s direct report. But Spicer wasn’t interested. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s top deputy, will serve in his stead.
Trump, a former television star himself, seems to enjoy treating his presidency like a reality TV show the country can never turn off. The former Apprentice star (and current executive producer) was underwhelmed by Spicer’s performance. As Vanity Fair reported, “The president, it is said, watches his daily briefings like SportsCenter, barking critiques of Spicer’s performances at his television.”
Still, he managed to find some kind words to say about Spicer on the ex-press secretary’s way out of the briefing room. On Spicer’s last day, President Trump tweeted that Spicer was a “wonderful person who took tremendous abuse from the Fake News Media — but his future is bright!”
Farewell Sean Spicer, the breakout TV star of 2017 was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.