I need to lose weight. While eating better and going to the gym is critical, I could also meet my targeted weight goal in less than one month by serving as the White House Press Secretary for President Trump. I would lose between two and three pounds at each press briefing, which have literally become daily and highly anticipated events for many, including me. For Sean Spicer, however, they have likely become nationally televised verbal saunas of stress.
During the first 76 days of the Trump presidency, I have literally watched Sean age before my eyes. His eyes often appear to show him having an out-of-body experience as he alternates between trying to explain and defend the positions, including tweets, of his undisciplined boss, and SOS pleas to be rescued and placed in a witness protection program. No doubt, Sean is experiencing stress unlike any other person who has ever filled that role.
Mike McCurry, who served in this capacity under President Bill Clinton, once said, “I believe the press secretary needs to work for both the press and the president. I like to say that the geography of the West Wing is a metaphor for the relationship — the press secretary’s office is exactly half way between the Oval Office and the briefing room.”
“The press office has to be an advocate for the press and the public’s right to know inside the White House,” McCurry said. “That is the best way to serve the president. The modern presidency cannot work effectively if it is constantly at war with the media.”
A significant part of Sean’s problems with the press is that the Trump administration is, as McCurry said, “constantly at war with the media.” It is true that no relationship between any White House and the press is considered perfect by either side. President Kennedy, perhaps in half-jest, once said, “I have a job to do, as does the press. We will get along as necessary, then one day go our separate ways.”
Indeed, a common criticism of the White House by the press, including with the Obama administration, is access to the president. The administration, on the other hand, always feels that the press is looking for a scandal, focusing on the wrong thing and only wants to trip up the president.
I have begun reading “Richard Nixon: The Life” by John A. Farrell. As Jennifer Senior relays in a review of the book for the New York Times titled, “Richard Nixon, Portrait of a Thin-Skinned, Media-Hating President,” the similarities between our 37th and 45th presidents are hauntingly similar.
“Like Trump, Nixon was a monomaniac on the stump, obsessed with enemies lurking within,” Senior writes. “Nixon too has a penchant for sowing mayhem and a gourmand’s appetite for revenge, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Trump tweets, Nixon made phone calls.”
Members of Nixon’s inner circle feared for the president’s mental and emotional stability. The book describes a scene when then-Vice President Nixon flew into a rage after taking questions from a group of hostile journalism students. An aide said to him, “What scares the hell out of me is that you would blow sky high over a thing as inconsequential as this. What in goddamn would you do if you were president and get into a really bad situation?”
In addition to their mutual disdain for the press, there are other similarities between Presidents Nixon and Trump. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon opened up a back channel to the president of South Vietnam, assuring him he’d get further backing if he just held out for a Nixon presidency and rejected Lyndon Johnson’s offer for a peace settlement.
Last fall, disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn held private talks with the Russians that appear to have promised a friendlier White House, if they could be patient for a Trump presidency.
So Donald J. Trump and Sean Spicer are now in the White House. Almost from day one, rumors have been circulating on whether Sean will survive. I have never met Sean but he, despite our political differences, appears to be a decent person and is an accomplished media professional. Unfortunately, he is in the untenable position of being the spokesperson for a president who believes that any objective criticism of him is “fake news.”
No president in a democracy can survive by making the press the enemy. Sean, who loses credibility every time he approaches the podium, must know this. But does President Trump?
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.