At 2:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sean Spicer bustled into the White House press-briefing room wearing a grey suit and a blue tie and began another of what is now among the most-watched and studied one-man dramas in U.S. history. About 40 minutes later, he left in a huff. That's why the drama has huge TV ratings.
It was the first briefing since U.S. President Donald Trump returned from a trip to Europe and the Middle East, and a strange thing had happened in the gap between Spicer's must-see briefings: People had started to feel sorry for him. Even journalists he had insulted and badgered with prickly sarcasm were expressing sympathy for him.
The sympathy is misguided. It seems like, as the old saying goes, sympathy for the devil.
Spicer, to those who know him beyond his often-preposterous performances in the briefings, is many things. Among his distinguishing attributes is his pride in being a church-going Irish-American Catholic. This is a guy who, before he was elevated to White House director of communications and press secretary, was well-known for dressing in green, shamrock-laden trousers on St. Patrick's Day. And for reminiscing about his days as a student at Portsmouth Priory School, a Catholic Benedictine school in Rhode Island.
But when Trump met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, the very proudly Catholic Spicer was noticeably absent from the meeting. A small army of reporters expressed outrage at the snub. The ostentatious exclusion of Spicer was described as an act of "small-mindedness" and "needlessly harsh."
The expression of sympathy tells us several things. First, there is nothing personal in the strange, testy exchanges between Spicer and the press. It's all insider ritual and, maybe, Melissa McCarthy's relentless mockery of Spicer's gratuitous pugnacity in her Saturday Night Live sketches has had the accidental effect of generating compassion for the man.
That Spicer has become a living, breathing illumination of everything that is toxic about the Trump White House is painfully clear. But if Spicer is a tragic figure made excruciatingly human through exposure on TV and by being made into a buffoon on SNL, it's important to remember that a tragic figure is defined as a character who makes a crucial judgment error that inevitably leads to his or her own destruction. It's self-induced. Such figures epitomize cautionary tales; they're not heroic in the least.
When he began at 2:10 p.m. on Tuesday, a grim-faced Spicer opened with a summary of Trump's foreign trip. It sounded like a boasting child's report on a lavish family vacation. All that was missing was the selection of photos. At 2:21 p.m., Spicer took questions. What ensued was a dismissive, sometimes grimly sneering assault on truth and the media. Even by the standards of these surreal events, Spicer was disingenuous, evasive and rude.
A rough summary is this – the White House will not talk about whether Trump knew about Jared Kushner's alleged meetings with Russian officials; any news story using anonymous sources is "fake news" unless that news story is defending Jared Kushner; nobody knows if Trump believes that human activity is contributing to the warming of the climate; and Trump's relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel is "fairly unbelievable."
Perhaps there is a tendency to see Spicer's televised briefings as part of a cable TV drama in which Spicer is a simply a flawed man whose flaws invoke tenderness and understanding – as if the entire Trump era so far is like a morally murky series that fits into the genre that includes The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad. When so much of this Trump era unfolds on TV there might be a tendency to conflate fiction with reality.
That's so wrong-headed. This is all real. What Spicer does is real. He's a spin doctor paid to launch assaults on the observable truth, and he signed up for it. In his first outings he sneered at reporters for "deliberate false reporting" of the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. He yelled at reporters for calling Trump's attempted immigration legislation "a ban," even as the President himself called it "a ban."
Sure, there is dark humour to be drawn from Sean Spicer's spinning and rants about "fake news." Only Spicer could use the words "Trump" and "eloquent" in the same sentence. But while Spicer might be performing, it's not fiction unfolding and expressions of sympathy for him are delusional and dangerous.