It hit me this past week, around the time when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was blithely seconding Chief of Staff John Kelly’s Civil War revisionism, that I missed Sean Spicer.
I missed the panic in his eyes, which signaled a scintilla of awareness that he was peddling hooey. I missed the squeak in his voice, which suggested perhaps the tiniest smidgen of shame.
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He never seemed to me entirely at home in his domicile of deception; she dwells without evident compunction in a gaudier fairyland of grander fictions. There’s no panic. No squeak. Just that repulsed expression, as if a foul odor had wafted in and she knew – just knew– that the culprit was CNN.
True, she hasn’t told a lie as tidy as Spicer’s ludicrousness about Donald Trump’s inauguration crowds. But her briefings are breathtaking – certainly this week’s were. For some 20 minutes every afternoon, down is up, paralysis is progress, enmity is harmony, stupid is smart, villain is victim, disgrace is honor, plutocracy is populism and Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia if anyone would summon the nerve to investigate her(because, you know, that never, ever happens). I watch and listen with sheer awe.
With despair, too, because Sanders doesn’t draw nearly the censure or ridicule that Spicer did, and the reason isn’t her. It’s us. More precisely, it’s what Trump and his presidency have done to us. Little more than nine months in, we’ve surrendered any expectation of honesty. We’re inured.
Sure, every administration indulges in self-serving narratives and laughable spin. But this administration takes both to perverse summits, and Sanders is its mountaineer extraordinaire.
She has perfected the president’s I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I manner of public debate and insisted this week not only that Clinton was the one in cahoots with the Russians but also that journalists were guilty of making a needless story out of the Civil War. She went so far as to take profound personal offense that anyone could read Kelly’s remarks, which bizarrely pinned that conflict on a generic failure to compromise, as a minimization of slavery. He was pristine. His critics were pigs.
“General Kelly was simply making the point that just because history isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean it’s not our history,” she said Tuesday with an impossibly straight face, utterly ignoring Kelly’s “compromise” comment and his gauzy eulogy of Robert E. Lee.
She added that journalists’ refusal to brush off those tangents was the truly “outrageous and absurd” development. Thus she aced her favorite trick: the moral inversion of the universe.
Other press secretaries demonized the media, but not as ambitiously and artlessly as she. On Wednesday, she was reminded of her recent statement that all leaders have flaws, and she was asked to name one of Trump’s.
“Probably that he has to deal with you guys on a daily basis,” she said.
She needs a vocabulary lesson. The bloat of Trump’s ego is a flaw. The plunge of his necktie: also a flaw. Being answerable to a skeptical news media may be an inconvenience – or, for someone as thin-skinned as he is, an absolute torment – but it’s not a flaw. It also happens to be a vital component of democracy, should she and her boss care to reacquaint themselves with that.
When her boss does something execrable, she validates it at greater length and with more passion than most paid sycophants would muster. She chalked up that tweet of his about Mika Brzezinski (“bleeding badly from a facelift”) to a laudably bold retaliation against a merciless adversary, and she used it as a springboard to swoon over him anew. “I think the American people elected somebody who’s tough, who’s smart and who’s a fighter,” she said. “And that’s Donald Trump.”
She zealously parrots his contention that there’s no evidence of anything untoward between his campaign and Russia, dismissing his hapless namesake’s infamous meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian emissary as “pretty standard campaign operating procedure.”
She edits out the revelation that George Papadopoulos – once named by Trump himself as an important adviser to the campaign – was trying to coordinate with Moscow. When that news broke Monday, she said that it had “nothing to do with the president.”
So began an audacious week when she came into her mendacious own. She asserted that Trump had not politicized the deaths of eight people in lower Manhattan because the immigration complaints that he almost instantly raised were ones that he had bellowed about before. So he was – what – grandfathered in? Well, then, so are gun-control advocates who react to yet another mass shooting by repeating their observation that this nation is drowning in firearms.
Jim Acosta of CNN asked her why, at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump called the American justice system “a joke” and “a laughingstock.”
“That’s not what he said,” she shot back – it’s like a reflex with her – and later added, “He said the process has people calling us a joke and calling us a laughingstock.” Wow. Huge difference. Small problem: Acosta’s description of Trump’s remarks came closer to his verbatim words than her tortured, wishful version did.
She’s awful at this, but that makes her an excellent fit for an administration in which mediocrity, inadequate experience and nepotism run rampant.
Besides, she’s serving a function other than communication, which turns out not to be her forte. (To listen to her pronounce “priorities” is akin to hearing the air seep out of a flat tire, and she leaves half of the consonants on the curb.)
She’s a bogus message to Middle America that Trump’s White House is really a homespun, family-values kind of place. Hence her repeated references to being a working mom and managing a boisterous brood at home. Hence her invocation of religion – she’s the daughter of a rather well-known pastor – when asked during one briefing how she’d explain Trump’s worst behavior to her own children.
“When it comes to role models, as a person of faith, I think we all have one perfect role model,” she answered, characteristically using a non sequitur as an evasion. “I point to God. I point to my faith. And that’s where I would tell my kids to look.”
But if they’re to look away from Trump, why does she so willingly look up to him? And how does she square her faith with the purveyance of so much gobbledygook? Maybe she tells herself that there’s no contradiction. That would be her grandest fiction of all.