Right-wing story hour, part 3: The unbearable sadness of being Sean Spicer

"I'll try and keep this quick," he said to a dozen kids assembled. "I'm the last thing between you and lunch."

Published May 6, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Sean Spicer (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sean Spicer (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Recently, in a post on his YouTube channel, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the cancellation of his nightly cable show: "After three-plus amazing years, I'm leaving Newsmax to embark on a new project." Without providing specifics, he said that he'd be playing a major role in the run-up to the 2024 election. "I have a plan to bring it directly to you in a new way," he added.

SPICER DESPERATE TO WORK FOR EX-BOSS DONALD TRUMP, the headline to a subsequent Radar Online article proclaimed. "Sean shocked his small TV audience when he announced he would be leaving," an anonymous source revealed, "but what he didn't mention is that he's begging for his old job back. Spicer would kill to be back in the White House." 

A week earlier, I'd watched him read from his new children's book, "The Parrots Go Bananas." This was in Washington, at the Cleveland Park public library. The event constituted the latest stop in a promotional tour organized by Brave, Spicer's Texas publisher. Already Jack Posobiec and Chaya Raichik — stars in the online world of far-right influencers — had presented their books, black-and-white allegories of popular conservative talking points: Antifa wolves for Posobiec, a 38-year-old political operative who'd risen to prominence promoting conspiracies; and, for Raichik — the 28-year-old creator of Libs of TikTok — a schoolteacher wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.

There'd also been a reading by Kirk Cameron, the former "Growing Pains" star turned evangelist; after arriving late he'd hurried through the pages of his own picture book, "As You Grow" — a mashup of "Avatar," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and the most take-my-body-and-eat-from-it passages in "The Giving Tree."

By the time it was Spicer's turn, the children in the audience had been sitting on the hard carpet of the library's main room for more than two hours. "I'll try and keep this quick," he said to them. "I'm the last thing between you and lunch."

Spicer, 51, wore jeans and a textured plaid sportscoat, and he was holding a copy of his book. He'd become a household name half a decade earlier in his role as the first of Trump's four White House press secretaries, during which time he racked up a number of controversies, from comments on crowd sizes and Hitler to his failed attempt to conceal himself behind a row of bushes. From the start he'd been mocked in the press, on late-night shows, and by his current boss, who seemed incapable of passing on an opportunity for humiliation. Trump disparaged Spicer over his height and weight and ridiculed his fashion sense. He didn't hesitate to express his disgust after he was portrayed by a woman, Melissa McCarthy, on "Saturday Night Live." During a trip to the Vatican he even went so far as to refuse to let his press secretary, a devout Catholic, meet Pope Francis.

Before taking the job at the White House, Sean Spicer's career had been defined by a steady series of successes. He'd grown up in Rhode Island, one of three children in his Irish-Catholic family. His father was a successful insurance salesman. His mother worked in the Asian Studies department at Brown University. He majored in government at Connecticut College and began working in conservative politics soon after. Climbing his way up the ladder, he traded in one media relations post for the next until, in 2011, he became the head of communications for the Republican National Committee, overseeing a staff of 30. 

Along the way he met his wife, Rebecca Miller, then a television producer. He also found the time to enlist in the Naval Reserve, rising to the rank of commander, and even managed to land the role of White House Easter Bunny, sporting the costume for the annual egg roll. In 2014, Spicer set down in print his personal philosophy on life, which he distilled into 17 rules. Follow your mom's advice, he counseled (#16). Have a relationship with God (#14). Take responsibility when you screw up—you will be rewarded! (#4). Think before you Tweet (#2).

That morning there were perhaps a dozen children in the audience. Together they fidgeted and called out, interrupting things repeatedly with their questions and responses.

In the run-up to his first briefing he declared,"I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. Our intention is never to lie to you." For the next 18 months the positions of the 45th President of the United States became his own. He defended a man whose personal history came across as a step-by-step refutation of everything he believed. When, suddenly, it was all over, he was out, and the public image he'd spent his career building would be fixed forever to that of his former boss.

He quickly published a memoir, "The Briefing," a mixture of talking points, dad jokes, and candid passages that he'd written with the hopes of landing a celebrity talk show. He then spent the next few years testing the celebrity waters, most notably during a brief stint in reality television, before he settled down in 2020 as the host of his own show on Newsmax, an outlet whose cast of far-right operators made him appear, in comparison, to be a known quality.

For the event at the Cleveland Park public library, Spicer read for just over 15 minutes. The plot of his children's book centered on a game of "smash ball"; it featured a large cast of anthropomorphic animals, a minority of whom, through their shameless use of social media, drove the action forward by misrepresenting the game's key play.

Unlike the Posobiec and Raichik stories, his material refused to snap easily into place. "It's not like it's mean-spirited," he'd said during a recent appearance. "It doesn't call out the media or try to make anyone seem like a bad guy. It teaches a very valuable lesson."

Which is . . . what, exactly? 

That morning there were perhaps a dozen children in the audience. Together they fidgeted and called out, interrupting things repeatedly with their questions and responses. Their parents, seated in chairs toward the back, gazed down at their phones. Even Spicer's fellow presenters seemed restless. At one point, Posobiec, in response to a clarification of the book's setting, shouted acidly, "Gee, thanks, Mr. Spicer."

For an instant I saw him as they surely did, fatally exposed, the vital contents of his innermost self spilling out now for everyone to see.

But Spicer seemed to be taking things in stride. Watching him, I found myself thinking about my own daughter—a second grader sitting in her classroom only a few miles away—and the confusion she would've felt if she'd been forced to endure nearly 200 minutes of stories that, despite their kid-friendly packaging, were clearly aimed at a different audience: an adult one, hungry for the branded content these conservative influencers provide.

Now the plot of "The Parrots Go Bananas" was heating up. The animals, outraged by the misleading posts that had gone viral on social media, were gathering in an angry mob. Together they sought out the stars of the smash-ball game, accusing them of cheating. These players, in turn, tried to explain themselves. But the mob was out of control. It chased them from the town, all the way to the ledge of a nearby cliff. A harrowing scene: on one side, the perilous plummet. On the other, a wall of once-friendly faces closing in. 

Spicer looked up from the page he was reading. "Can you imagine how scared they must feel right now?" he asked the children. "They're getting accused of something." He shook his head. "That's got to hurt."

"They are dying!" a young boy at his feet yelled out.

"Well," he replied, "that's very possible."

Throughout the reading, I'd been sitting alongside Amanda Moore, a freelance writer who was covering the event for The Daily Dot. I glanced at her in disbelief.

"It's like the book-report scene in 'Mean Girls,'" she whispered. "We should totally just stab Caesar!"

I looked over at Posobiec and Raichik. They were watching Spicer closely. To them, I realized, the emotion in his voice must be like blood in the water. For an instant I saw him as they surely did, fatally exposed, the vital contents of his innermost self spilling out now for everyone to see. All he could do was gaze back at them, uncomprehending.

Spicer's story concluded on a note of reconciliation: the truth came to light, the murderous mob dispersed, and the star smash-ball players were allowed to step away from the brink. "The crowd is sitting back," he read, "and they say, 'We didn't even know all the facts. We have to apologize.'"

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He closed the book. He had one last thing he wanted to explain. "They were up against a cliff," he said. "They could have gotten hurt. Think about that the next time something like that happens. If they're good people and they mean well, let's not jump to conclusions. Let's help them. We need to not do things that are going to make them feel bad, or, potentially, hurt themselves…" He broke off. "Because, you know, sometimes people don't have the best intentions."

The people around clapped softly.

"The f**k?" I whispered. But that was it. I was about to get up from my seat when suddenly, in the spot where Sean Spicer had just been standing, Kirk Cameron appeared again.

"We are the revival," he said to us. "We need to get in the fight. We need to be off the defense and onto the offense: an army of compassion." He bowed his head. "I'd like to close with a prayer."

I found myself thinking about my own daughter and the confusion she would've felt if she'd been forced to endure nearly 200 minutes of stories that, despite their kid-friendly packaging, were clearly aimed at an adult audience. 

Three decades earlier, Cameron had shocked Hollywood by leaving behind his acting career to commit himself to Jesus. Now, at 52, with his short hair and sharp cheeks and perfect posture, he looked like an unnaturally youthful pastor whose self-portrait in the attic had long since turned to dust: a soldier for Christ if there ever was one. "Dear God in heaven," he intoned. "We know that our hope and our help comes from you…"

It made sense why Cameron was here. I could also understand the reasoning behind Chaya Raichik's participation; Seemingly unimpressed by the children in the audience, she perhaps saw it as an opportunity to expand her personal brand of anti-LGBTQ content. Posobiec, too: For him, an event like this offered all the ingredients necessary for his scorched-earth style of online chaos.

But how had Sean Spicer ended up here? He was standing off to the side, his head bowed. What did he think of the prayer he was listening to now? 

 "Tell all of your friends what you did this morning," Kirk Cameron instructed. "And encourage them to come to future book meetings."

* * *

A few minutes later I had a chance to speak with him. He was still standing off to the side of the room. I couldn't help but notice that he was wearing a significant amount of makeup; from here he'd probably head straight to the Newsmax studio on K Street, where he'd record what would be one of the last episodes of "Spicer & Co." 

At first he seemed wary. I introduced myself, offering an aspect of my background I thought he might find comforting: "I'm writing a book on the historical origins of Jesus," I said.  

"No way!" he replied brightly.

I asked if in his youth he'd attended a Jesuit high school, as I had.

"Benedictine," he answered. "I went to Portsmouth Abbey. It's in Rhode Island."

We talked for a bit about the differences between Catholicism and born-again Christianity. "Evangelicals tend to follow their scripts a lot more," he said, "right?"

What kind of mob actually backs down after listening to a well-reasoned argument?

I nodded. One thing that makes a Catholic mass unique is the priest's homily. Evangelicals, in contrast, tend to bypass this step by encouraging worshippers to establish a personal relationship with God. Today, I'm still struck by my own childhood memories of the homily: What it was like to hear, in the churches of my youth, stories that have remained with me all these years later, despite my current perspective as a neutral, non-practicing agnostic. 

"Is there a moment from the gospels," I wondered, "that for you sticks out above all the rest?"

"That's an excellent question." He thought it over. "The parable of the Prodigal Son." 

It was one of my favorites too, a story of three men in conflict: The younger son who leaves home, wasting his inheritance before returning, years later, to throw himself at the mercy of his family; the older son, devoted and resentful, who stays; and their father, balanced between them.

"Is there a character in it you identify with?" I asked.

"You know, it depends on where I am in my life." He mentioned the oldest son: "If you're honest with yourself, you can go without. But then there's that moment… I was lost and then I came back." Now he was talking about the younger son. "That's why the story's so amazing. There are days… It's like you can pick your day, tell me how you're feeling, and I can tell you I'll identify with one of the two."

"I love the character of the father," I told him.

He looked at me. I realized that maybe the father was a figure he hadn't before considered. For him, the parable had been about the brothers, which made sense. When it comes to the central conceit — those who leave and those who stay — the role of the parent can feel beside the point. 

Then his pale blue eyes flashed upward. He was trying to place me. Did he think I was out to get him, that this was some sort of elaborate trap? But an instant later his eyes cleared. Whatever he'd been feeling was already gone. It had passed like the shadow of a bird in flight, disappearing so completely that I felt I'd imagined it. 

"You're right, of course," he said. "There's a third character. The father." He smiled. "But the two sons…"

I nodded. So did he. There didn't seem to be anything left to say. He wished me luck with my book. I thanked him for his time.  

As I was leaving the library, I overheard the creative director for Brave Books, Eric Presley, explaining their production model. "We would describe ourselves as a Christian conservative book company." For each new release, a group of rotating staff writers and illustrators gets paired up with a prominent right-wing celebrity. Sometimes these celebrities suggest a general topic and step back, letting the publisher do the rest, but in certain instances, they take a more hands-on approach. "I think Sean Spicer is a good example," he added. "He's very passionate. He has an idea of what he wants to teach the kids, and we worked together with him to come up with the story."

So what was he trying to teach? When you're up against a cliff your options tend to be limited. You can beg forgiveness. You can declare your innocence. But what kind of mob actually backs down after listening to a well-reasoned argument?

* * *

The next day, Sean Spicer was live on his Newsmax show when the story broke that Donald Trump would be indicted, becoming the first former president in history to face criminal charges.

He's written his memoir, danced with the stars on reality television, and even hosted his own show. He's failed, in retrospect, to adapt. 

For the most part he repeated the information he'd been given, avoiding commentary. Then he spoke over the phone to Alan Dershowitz, who, mid-conversation, hung up so he could appear on another show.

At least, unlike Tucker Carlson, Spicer was allowed to say goodbye to his audience. He made sure to promote his social media accounts, spelling out the address of his personal website. "Stay in touch," he implored.

What are his options? He's written his memoir, danced with the stars on reality television, and even hosted his own show: a news program on a far-right channel. He's failed, in retrospect, to adapt. 

 "I checked in with Trumpworld to see if Spicer would be two-stepping his way back into the inner circle," Tara Palmieri wrote recently for Puck News. "One Trump advisor described the chances of a Spicer reunion as 'unlikely, but possible.' Until then, I hold my breath for the Spicer-Trump show part deux."

The beauty of the Prodigal Son has always resided, for me, in the parent's response to his two children. The youngest begs forgiveness and asks to be treated as a servant. The oldest complains that he's never been given his due. In both instances, they're met with love and compassion.

Now imagine Sean Spicer arriving at Mar-a Lago to ask for the same. No wonder he hadn't considered the father's role in the parable. We're never so lost as when the place we're hoping for is already beyond our reach.

By Timothy Denevi

Timothy Denevi’s most recent book is "Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism." He teaches nonfiction in the MFA program at George Mason University.

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