A bipartisan gathering of former press secretaries is generally not the hottest ticket in town.
But in an era when daily White House press briefings are getting better ratings than many daytime soap operas, and the high point of any new “Saturday Night Live” is Melissa McCarthy’s spot-on impression of White House Press Secretary Sean “Spicy” Spicer, I figured it might be fun to listen in.
Monday, I took myself to the state capital, where five former press secretaries who served Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Democrats Gray Davis and Jerry Brown headlined a Sacramento Press Club lunch.
All of them have long political resumes, and most now own political PR firms. Perhaps they would be able to explain Spicer, whose bizarre White House briefing room debut was built around President Trump’s claims that his inauguration crowds were historically large.
“Spicer is just saying what he needs to to keep his job,” said former Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman, who was an outspoken Trump critic last year.
“If he is out there lying to reporters every day, I don’t know how he repairs that relationship,” said Steve Maviglio, who worked for Davis. “Being a press secretary is a relationship job. You need us, we need you, and that has broken down from Day One in this administration.”
Kevin Eckery, who worked for Wilson, agreed. “There is no fighting chance now that there could be a trust relationship,” Eckery said, “because it’s been so abused.”
The unfortunate bind that Spicer is in, he said, is that his ostensible audience is the press. But in reality he is performing only for the man he works for: Trump.
This was apparent after Spicer’s infamous maiden press conference that inspired “SNL’s” best new bit. Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted: “This is called a statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”
“I’ve been a press secretary too,” Eckery tweeted in reply. “We all make mistakes, but I never lied for my boss and he never asked me to lie. That’s when you quit.”
I do not doubt Eckery is sincere. But I have covered politics and Hollywood for years, and I guarantee you, there is nary a press secretary nor publicist who has not lied to a reporter at one time or another, either deliberately or by omission.
If you have a good relationship, though, you usually get over it.
Partly, Spicer has gotten away with an execrable relationship to the truth because he works for a man who has an epic disdain for facts. The president — and by extension, Spicer — gets away with it because Trump is such an unusual political figure.
“Celebrity rules are different from politician rules,” Eckery said. “And right now, Donald Trump is playing by celebrity rules. It’s just like when we saw the rules change for Gov. Davis when Arnold Schwarzenegger came along.”
(Who could forget? Schwarzenegger, one of the biggest celebrities in the world at the time, announced his gubernatorial bid on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” In 2003, turning the governor’s race into entertainment fodder seemed tacky and unserious. That reaction now seems hopelessly quaint.)
“Arnold was fun and had a sense of humor and knew how to defuse people,” said Margita Thompson, who was his first-term spokesman, and now works for an independent California oil and natural gas producer. Like the Trump administration, on a much smaller scale, Schwarzenegger, a political neophyte, had a lot of chaos at the beginning as he assembled his team.
However, in Trump’s case, said the press secretaries, the chaos seems strategic.
“It’s designed to distract,” Eckery said. “The president is a middle-rank New York developer who pursues everything as zero sum. ‘If I create enough chaos, I will create some advantage for myself.’ He is playing in a place he is very comfortable. I don’t know if there will ever be order.”
Stutzman had a slightly different take: “Steve Bannon has a strategy. Bannon and [Stephen] Miller see a long play. I don’t know if the president does.” (Trump chief strategist Bannon is a self-described “economic nationalist” who advocates “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” Trump senior advisor Miller raised eyebrows recently when he told “Face the Nation” viewers that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”)
When Politico reported that Spicer had called his staffers into a room with White House lawyers and forced them to relinquish their personal and business cellphones in a quest to find leakers, the press secretaries shook their heads.
“Leaks are part of the game,” said Gil Duran, former spokesman for Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “They are annoying and they can make your life a headache, but they are part of democracy. You have to roll with it.”
The press secretaries saw their jobs as maneuvering between the needs of the press and the needs of their boss, or “principal.”
“We are the principal’s warrior on the outside,” Thompson said, “and the press’s warrior on the inside.”
Delivering unpalatable news to the boss is also part of the job description, not something one can easily imagine Spicer providing to Trump, who has a famously low tolerance for criticism.
Eckery worked for Wilson at a tumultuous time in California, when the state experienced the Northridge earthquake and the Rodney King riots. Wilson’s popularity over two terms waxed and waned.
“Occasionally, we have to tell him the truth and say, ‘That didn’t work’ or ‘That could have gone better.’” After one public event, Eckery said, a junior staffer told Wilson what a great job he did. Eckery, who disagreed, told Wilson his job was not to flatter the governor, but to be honest.
Wilson put his hand on Eckery’s shoulder and said, “You know, Kevin, you don’t need to burden yourself like that.”
Can you imagine an exchange like that between Spicer and our frail-egoed president?
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