Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Hey, talk show gatekeepers: Let's not enable Sean Spicer

Can we please refrain from rehabbing the image of a dupe whose main claim to fame is enabling a dangerous liar?


Melanie McFarland
July 24, 2018 8:12PM (UTC)

Today Sean Spicer’s book “The Briefing: Politics, The Press and The President” hits bookstore shelves, so if you see lines winding around the block, that is not why.

Maybe tickets for a Prince concert went on sale without warning. Perhaps Apple released an updated Smart Shoe. Either of these would be more plausible reasons for people to form a queue. And yes, I know Prince is dead, but all signs point to this being The End Times. Nobody should be surprised if the deceased began walking the Earth, let alone staged a secret show.

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In any case, that event would be worth getting excited about. Whereas the debut of feeble memoir by the former White House Press Secretary to whom The New Yorker bid adieu in July 2017 with the headline “Sean Spicer Will Be Remembered for His Lies”? Not so much.

Besides, the last time Spicer made a major public appearance, the world threw up in its mouth a little: last September, when Stephen Colbert hosted the Emmys, he had Spicer — at the time freshly ousted by Donald Trump — glide onto the stage to declare “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period — both in person and around the world!”

See, we were supposed to laugh at that, because the Emmys have been low-rated for some time now, so that was an obvious falsehood. But we didn’t laugh, not really, because of all the gaslighting in which Spicer willingly participated. Nearly every day of the six months that he served as Press Secretary, Spicer would nervously shuffle before the press corps in badly fitting suits and engage in theatrical stammering that led us to the conclusion that he was really, really bad at his job.

The string of evidence commenced with his passionate misrepresentation of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration, which was essentially asking people around the world to disbelieve their own eyes. Soon after came his insistence that the travel ban targeting countries with large Muslim populations was not a ban even though his boss used that exact three letter word.

And the B.S. only got dumber from there. There were props. There were incredible "Saturday Night Live" skits in which he was portrayed by Melissa McCarthy. His mind-blowing remarks about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons was a career capper: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler," he told journalists, "who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Mind you, all of this transpired before we got a load of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has proven herself to be so morally flexible and oleaginous that ExxonMobil may want to consider attaching her to a pumpjack. Sanders’ brazen disregard for facts that don’t make her boss look good, coupled with her silken ability to dodge questions asked by the journalists she confronts and insults regularly, makes Spicer look even lamer in retrospect than Melissa McCarthy's "Saturday Night Live" impression made him out to be.

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Now Spicer has re-emerged from a place not quite adjacent to obscurity but somewhere like it,  touring with his tome and perhaps seeking a measure of redemption.

Let's not give it to him.

READ MORE: Megyn Kelly exposed: NBC host goes to great lengths to avoid calling Trump a liar

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Now, denying Spicer's re-entry to the larger political stage may not be as simple as one might believe. Men like him, those feckless, nervously smiling lumps pouring into decent haberdashery, have a knack for scoring second chances. This is especially true when these scoops of sadness made flesh allow enough time to pass that we can't quite remember why we couldn't stand them. And it could very well be that Spicer's role in ushering in an era of lies passed off as official truths has grown somewhat fuzzier in our addled brains.

Spicer's reasons for returning extend beyond merely pushing his book.  He has a blandly titled talk show in the works,“Sean Spicer’s Common Ground,” a co-production of Debmar-Mercury (which blesses us with “Family Feud”) and the Pilgrim Media Group (which declares on its homepage, “We only do ‘spaceship amazing,’ and produces shows such as “Ghost Hunters”).

Reports indicate that he’s having problems attracting interest from potential broadcasters or getting people to agree to come on as guests. This may have something to do with the fact that the six months he spent in front of cameras let us know how terrible he looks on television.

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Yet Spicer appears to be a man who falls on his face seven times and stands up eight — he will not give up on the public that is not anxiously awaiting his next move. Spicey’s comeback tour started with last week’s appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, which let us know he’s neither truly contrite about his previous job performance, nor has he somehow grown more credible.

On the contrary, his main purpose in appearing on “Today” was to serve as a sparring dummy upon which hosts Savannah Guthrie and Megyn Kelly could practice their verbal jiu jitsu.

“Is the president a truthful person?” Guthrie asks him in her interview.  Incredibly (or, it's incredible  if you're not aware of where Spicer currently works) he replies, “I believe so.”

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From there Guthrie points out three of Trump’s most outlandish claims that he attempted to foist upon the media, all of which have proven to be false: the inauguration crowd, the claims of three to five million fraudulent votes with no evidence, and having tapes of Comey in the Oval Office.

“I appreciate you keeping it to three,” Spicer quipped.

Not long afterward Kelly, through bright smiles and occasional shark-like giggles, slapped Spicer around in front of a studio audience that applauded her for doing so.  Never mind: he’ll get a do-over on July 31, which is when he’s scheduled to appear on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

Kimmel invited Spicer on his show not long after he left the White House and a few days prior to that Emmy’s idiocy. And the late night host was friendly to Spicer back then, mostly because in comparison to Anthony Scaramucci’s disastrous and quickly cancelled ten day stint as White House Director of Communications, Spicer comes off as infinitely more even-keeled.

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The problem with such appearances, even the contentious ones, is that they contribute to the image rehabilitation of a man who does not deserve to be let off the hook so easily.

Talk show hosts know that they are, in a real way, gatekeepers to the realms of power and fame. No candidate would deign to sit down with Trevor Noah or spar with Stephen Colbert or nuzzle with Jimmy Fallon if that weren’t the case. Over the course of a few minutes, these men and women can transform distant politicians into people you'd like to have a drink with.

Even abrasive Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro is aware of this. The judge complained that Whoopi Goldberg made her feel like “less than dirt” in her recent appearance on “The View,” but she had to know that the ABC daytime talker would not be friendly territory for her. She went on anyway. For her trouble, Pirro's new book “Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy” soared into the number one slot on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Pirro thanked the ladies of "The View," her voice dripping with honeyed vindication, at the close of a show that aired afterward.

As of Tuesday morning Pirro’s book sits at #2 on Amazon’s list of Top 100 bestsellers, overtaken by Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett’s book “The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump.”

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The lesson here is that Americans will buy anything from sources they trust, even if those sources bend the truth to suit their theories. As long as they’re fudging information with confidence, they’ll have an audience. Spicer failed on that front more a year ago.

A year may feel like a decade these days, but within that 12 month period we’ve witnessed Sanders present Trump’s outrageous lies with authority. She’s a skillful misdirector who doesn’t care if journalists have facts to disprove her, because the lie is the new fact and it’s coming from the president and that’s that.

Never forget that Spicer held open the door for Sanders' ascendance and the normalizing of peddling lies. And he hasn't learned any lessons with regard to his veracity. Look at that exchange with Guthrie one more time: a few moments after he affirms that he believes Trump to be truthful, he also acknowledges the falsehoods he was made to perpetuate. Or rather, he acknowledges that keeping the list of those falsehoods to three is modest.

Spicer has to do that, given his role as a spokesman and senior advisor to the America First Action SuperPAC, a group dedicated boosting the Trump-Pence agenda on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.

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This is the only job Spicer could land after exiting the White House. Most former White House officials are able to land cushy contributor gigs with a TV news organization — Fox would have been the most likely candidate in his case — but not him.  Nobody wanted to hire Spicer due to “a lack of credibility.”

Think about that. Even Trump’s former campaign manager Corey “womp, womp” Lewandowski got hired by CNN and still appears on Fox News. Sanders will in all likelihood get a contributor position because she is credible if not entirely truthful.

Having said that, Fox has provided the friendliest climate for Spicer’s promotional tour; he’s appeared on several Fox News Channel shows, a path likely paved by Trump’s tweet endorsing the book.

The marketplace may not be as kind. Although “The Briefing” sits at #228 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list as of Tuesday morning, which isn’t terrible, the pre-sales buzz didn’t come close to matching that of James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty”: In April Comey's book sold more than 600,000 copies in all formats available within the first week of its release.

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Among the top reviews of "The Briefing" on Amazon was this one-star evaluation: “One of the worst political books ever written. Not very well written, not that interesting, quite self serving, does not address the real problems of his tenure as press secretary. BTW, I am a Republican.”

There’s also this confusing five-star review:

“Short like Sean

Best thing about it.”

Fates willing, may the same be said about this attempt at re-emerging onto the political stage. Salon reached out to representatives for all the main late night talk shows on broadcast networks, CBS’s “The Talk” and ABC’s “The View,” as well as reps for “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show.”

As of this article's publication only “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” has confirmed Spicer as a guest, with “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” "The Late Late Show with James Corden," “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and a rep from "The Talk" responding that as of now, there are no plans to invite him on.

Keep up the good work, you gatekeepers of image rehabilitation.

And don’t you dare give any more screen time to Scaramucci than he's already getting.

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Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley points out the ways that Donald Trump exercises the politics of fear.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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