Don't cry for me, Sarah Huckabee Sanders

The White House press secretary's rare moment of emotion was just a display of selfishness

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 31, 2018 5:02PM (EDT)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders (YouTube/The White House)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders (YouTube/The White House)

So detached from reality, so devoid of humanity is the current White House administration that when a member of its staff briefly displays something resembling an empathetic, emotional response, it's headline news.

On Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was momentarily flummoxed when 13-year-old Bay Area student Benje Choucroun asked a question about gun violence. The young Time for Kids reporter had been present for White House Sports and Fitness Day when he piped up during a press briefing. Before he spoke, Sanders pointed to her "young colleague in the back" and quipped, “Hopefully these aren’t as tough as bring-your-kid-to-work-day questions." She did not get the softball she'd expected.

Reading from his notes, Choucroun came in prepared. "At my school, we recently had a lockdown drill,” the boy said. “One thing that affects mine and others’ mental health is the worry that we or our friends could get shot at school. Specifically, can you tell me what the administration has done and will do to prevent these senseless tragedies?"

Lesson number one: Do not. Underestimate. Our kids.

What happened next appears to have surprised Sanders herself. She had remained composed while he posed his question, and by the end of her response she had resumed her usual robot-like demeanor. But somewhere in the middle, the mother of three cracked a little.

Sanders told him, "I think that as a kid and certainly as a parent, there is nothing more terrifying" — and it was right there, at that word "terrifying," that her voice began to break. She continued, "than for a kid to go to school and not feel safe, so I'm sorry that you feel that way." But then the more familiar, evasive Sanders began to assert her dominance again. "This administration takes it seriously," she said, "and the school safety commission that the president convened is meeting this week, again, an official meeting, to discuss the best ways forward and how we can do every single thing within our power to protect kids within our schools and to make them feel safe and to make their parents feel good about dropping them off."

She did not say the word "guns." She did not say anything, in fact, about a tangible, effective plan of action to reduce school violence. She didn't mention the White House's own bonkerballs March statement on "Hardening Our Schools" with initiatives "to enable schools to partner with State and local law enforcement to provide firearms training for school personnel" and to "support the transition of military veterans and retired law enforcement into new careers in education."

What child wouldn't feel safer reading that? Especially undocumented or minority children, who certainly wouldn't have anything to fear from armed adults with a background in law enforcement? The White House also proposes a Federal Commission on School Safety chaired by Secretary Betsy DeVos to explore topics like "entertainment rating systems and youth consumption of violent entertainment." Interestingly, even the proposed "expansion and reform of mental health programs" singles out ways to "identify and treat individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others" without an apparent thought to the generation of traumatized children and teenagers whose mental health, as Choucroun understands, is being eroded by the stress of lockdown drills and the threat of mass violence.

When you have a commander-in-chief who speaks at an NRA convention after a horror like Parkland, one who tweeted earlier this month that "Democrats and liberals in Congress want to disarm law-abiding Americans," no, you don't expect anything stronger than an occasional "thoughts and prayers" to come out of his official mouthpiece.

Sanders, who may or not know how to correctly hold a shotgun, has certainly not gone out of her way to behave like a person who knows how to respond to reasonable outpourings of grief and fear. In a February press briefing, she spent her time trying to defend her boss's bizarre assertion that the FBI failed to stop the Parkland shooter because it was focused on the Russia investigation. She grumpily told reporters, "He's making the point that we would like our FBI agencies to not be focused on something that is clearly a hoax in terms of investigating the campaign." Which is, sure, what you say in your first briefing after 17 young lives are snuffed out.

It's true that this administration already feels longer than and almost as bad as the entire run of "Full House," but reach back into your mind to a time when our leadership showed any emotion other than petulance. Remember Joe Biden dabbing his eyes as his BFF Barack awarded him the Presidential Medal of Honor? Or his intimate conversation about grief and loss to the families of fallen military service people? It was comforting, wasn't it?

Barack Obama cried all the damn time when he was president — even if the right often mocked him for it. He cried when he was re-elected, thanking his support team. He cried, "as a parent," after Sandy Hook, telling America, "They had their entire lives ahead of them…. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief. We have wept with you, we've pulled our children tight." He cried at the introduction of new gun laws. He cried with pride in his wife, and he cried dropping his daughter off at college.

Humans cry. They cry in sadness and fear and gratitude and love. They definitely go all out with the waterworks when it comes to their kids. They don't call other humans "animals" and they don't show more outrage over "Kathy Griffin going on a profane rant against the President on 'The View'" than they do over nearly 5,000 dead hurricane victims, many of them children. They don't coolly assert that upholding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is "good news for smuggling organizations and criminal networks."

I'm sure that Sanders sincerely loves her children, and that the thought of her own going off to school and not feeling safe triggered a genuine moment of maternal identification. I'm sure Ivanka and Melania love their kids too. What we have a glaring lack of evidence for, however, is that anyone in this administration has the emotional intelligence to summon an iota of base level empathy for anybody else's. You think Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes home, hugs her children, and thinks, "What can we do for the students in Baltimore with no heat in their classrooms? For kids in Flint with no clean water?" Do you think she wells up with concern then? Or do you think, as Rebecca Traister mused on Twitter Thursday, that "SHS can say w straight & righteous face that a comedian being mean to Ivanka on TV is 'vile' 'vicious' 'appalling' & 'disgusting' but would apply none of those descriptors to administration she's fronting for, which takes CHILDREN AWAY FROM PARENTS."

Huckabee's brief unguarded reaction to a child's legitimate question made headlines precisely because it was so unprecedented and unexpected. More telling, though, is how she managed to turn it around so quickly, resuming her regularly scheduled blah blah blahing in the blink of a slightly moistened eye. Wednesday's display was just further evidence that if you're looking for signs of life inside the White House press room, you're going to remain consistently disappointed. So don't take Huckabee's nanosecond of emotion as a glimmer of hope. Assume instead it was a temporary glitch in a supremely selfish system.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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