The Last White House Press Secretary
It is a Washington, D.C., custom that a flak jacket be hung in the closet of the White House press secretary’s office. A relic of the Vietnam War era, the jacket is one of those Beltway affectations delightful to those in power’s orbit and largely incomprehensible to the rest of us slobs. Such is the battle the White House press secretary must wage each day, the jacket tells those who’d take the job; it’s like withstanding anti-aircraft fire over North Vietnam, dealing with these unceasing journalistic hacks who make your life hell just because they can’t do anything else for a living. What a scream.
Never mind that much of the press secretary’s job is spent doing things like lying about putting actual soldiers in real flak jackets over real enemy fire, to kill or be killed. That’s not so cute to think about. The tradition that an outgoing press secretary leave a note in one of the flak jacket’s pockets for the incoming press secretary is similarly and infuriatingly detached from reality. As with so many American political norms, it reveals that bipartisanship is alive and well, despite furious argument to the contrary—that the defining self-identification for successful political hacks is not “Republican versus Democrat,” but “us versus them.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been something of a relief. As odd as it is to admit, I will miss her after her departure as Trump’s press secretary at the end of June, ahead of a likely run for governor of Arkansas. But in the same way that surviving a near-death experience can foster great personal growth and a newfound appreciation for life, so too has Sanders done the country a great service. By being the very best press secretary a president has ever had, Sanders has revealed just how worthless the position is—and how unceasingly evil the job must be, by its very nature.
With the possible exception of Ari Fleischer, who served under George W. Bush, Sanders may be the single most loathsome human being to ever occupy the position. She possesses a fundamental disdain for the truth, an outright contempt for the journalists ranged before her and an uncanny ability to never break the character of a cold, uncaring cipher, bored with whatever question has been posed to her.
It is said that investigators who captured the so-called Golden State Killer, watching him await questioning in the interrogation room, marveled at how still he was—hardly moving at all, barely blinking, an apex predator who had keenly honed his capacities for violence and brutality. Sanders has a similarly reptilian gene. Clucking at some question—about her government’s detention camps, or about locking little kids in cages until they die, or whatever lunacy her president had been responsible for that week—she’d huff at first about how absurd it was to even suggest whatever issue the question raised. Then, rearing her head back like a cobra in its wind-up, she’d strike, hissing at the journalist’s competence, about how unfair he or she was, and how laughable journalism had become to arrive at this new low point in its practice.
Sanders has been a minor hero to the far-right base of the leader she serves, and why wouldn’t she be? Every day she holds a press conference, she wins, humiliating a White House press corps that merely seeks to ask questions and record her answers.
Many journalists and politicos have argued that White House briefings of a more recent vintage serve an important purpose. Journalists need to be able to demand answers from the presidency, they contend, or, conversely, that the Oval Office needs a way of communicating directly with the press. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have never found these arguments convincing.
White House press briefings are not really so different from watching sports reporters push in close to some sweaty jock after an overtime loss to ask him what went wrong. The best-case scenario is that the reporter will extract some truly profound insight, like “Both teams played hard,” or “We gave 110%.” The worst is that the athlete will threaten to beat a reporter’s ass or simply refuse to play along. Witness the industrywide freakout that occurred when NFL running back Marshawn Lynch adopted a code of silence in post-game interviews, despite league bylaws requiring players to be available for such questioning.
Everyone is supposed to go through the motions here; it’s pure public relations, and it’s transactional. The press flack is there to massage the course of human events, nipping and tucking at history as it happens to make his or her boss look as good as possible. The assembled journalists, in theory, are there to hold truth to power, but that rarely seems to actually happen, in part because they feel the need to maintain some sort of equanimity in their dealings with the press flack. These are ornate ways of saying that the press secretary’s job is to lie, and the press corps’ job is to write the lie down.
It has always been an undignified and dirty job. Nixon’s guy, Ron Ziegler, who famously called Watergate a “third-rate burglary,” was literally pushed around in public by old Dick. Clinton’s hack, Mike McCurry, described his Lewinsky-era job as “telling the truth slowly,” which is another way of saying “not telling the truth.” Fleischer, a real thug, threatened the public, saying that it needed “to watch what they say” post-9/11. His successor, Scott McClellan, often didn’t even know when he was lying to the press, as he himself was being lied to by the likes of Karl Rove. And so it was in this grand tradition that a puffy-eyed vagrant in a suit two sizes too big staggered onto the podium, sputtering that the assembled journalists needed to stop lying about how few people had attended his boss’s inauguration. Sean Spicer may not have been a departure from the type of person who had previously held his post, but the president he served certainly was. It was between this rock and a hard place that Spicer called home, embarrassing himself every day trying to prevaricate, fudge and quibble according to standard operating procedure without angering the most unhinged president in recent history through some unmeant slight or unidentifiable failing.
To watch Spicer was to imagine what it was like for the generals of Saddam Hussein, who had been forbidden to retreat, even for tactical advantage, at the risk summary execution. Spicer never inhabited the role comfortably, and so it was Sanders’ great fortune to show us how it was done. She has had no shame, no hesitation, mindlessly parroting whatever her crazed boss wants said, and she has done it with no indication that it troubled her or struck her as deranged.
Sanders has served one master: Trump. There has been no pretense of helping the Fourth Estate, an avowed enemy; every press briefing has been simply an opportunity to embarrass journalists. The eventual cancellation of such briefings, in a show of the White House’s animus for the press, was almost redundant; in terms of educating the public, there was scarcely any difference between having a briefing or not having one. In this, she boiled down the job to its barest essential: mindlessly burnish her superior, per his wishes.
And here we have finally reached the terminal point of spin, where silence is equivalent to hatching a lie. Sanders is the first post-modern spin doctor, the John Cage of press secretaries, and in her silence, the void is filled with a cacophony of other, grander, more insane falsehoods. It feels more and more impossible these days to discern the truth. But perhaps therein lies an opportunity.
If the PR flacks of powerful leaders are liars who don’t serve much of a purpose, maybe they don’t need that much attention. Maybe the fact that Obama White House press flunkies Jay Carney, Robert Gibbs, Josh Earnest and Bill Burton all quickly migrated to corporate PR gigs (for Amazon, McDonald’s, United Airlines and the odious Howard Schultz, respectively) speaks to what the skill set being employed here truly is. Maybe press secretaries only need to be asked for comment at the terminus of a journalist’s exposé on shady fundraising or some disastrous failing of health care in their boss’s district; plenty of journalists, despite the decimation of their industry, still do this.
Let’s get rid of the White House press secretary; we don’t need to talk. We don’t need spin, via some carefully orchestrated daily waltz, no matter how genteel it may be. Let’s fight back, whether journalists, readers or just citizens. If Sarah Huckabee Sanders hates you, it’s probably a good sign. If it’s a dirty fight she and her ilk want, two sides can play at that game. Let the silence begin!Your support matters…
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