Being the White House spokesman in normal times (meaning any time Donald Trump is not the President) is a difficult job. While the press secretary’s staff is always very good about anticipating what questions will be asked (which is why there is a pre-brief meeting to go over those questions and the best responses – not answers, responses), sometimes a question comes up that you didn’t anticipate.
And even if you anticipated all the questions, you still are the one standing up at the podium, on the record and on camera. Exposed for all to see and hear.
It’s really a job no one should want, however for those who have been in political media, it is a job many covet as the ultimate test of their abilities. Question is, do you have the experience, confidence and guts to take the job?
Having briefed the White House press a few times and having been in those pre-brief meetings to review issues with the press secretary, I can speak from some experience.
The first time I briefed, my voice literally was shaking – I could hear it, I knew I sounded very nervous but I couldn’t do anything about it. Thanks to the late Helen Thomas of UPI, the then-dean of the White House press corps who in those days began and ended White House briefings and press conferences, the briefing was cut off after 15 minutes and I fast-walked back to the press offices asking my colleagues along if the way if I had mucked up anything (I hadn't).
Before you go to the podium, you do review most issues that will be raised. Fortunately, you also have colleagues sitting nearby during the briefing who are more expert on some issues than you are and you can turn to as appropriate for help during a briefing. You don’t do that often because you can quickly lose control of the room if a give-and-take begins between the reporters and your colleague. I can't imagine anyone would do it while on camera.
I use the past tense because in my day, the briefings typically were not on camera and seldom live. That’s partly because we controlled when a briefing was live and more so because the only cable news network at the time was CNN, which was just beginning. Broadcast networks nearly never ran a press spokesman’s briefing live then. Now, it's must-see TV on cable.
The other thing you do, or I did anyway, before I took the podium was think about the various constituencies who would be paying attention to the briefing and how what I said might be interpreted by them and how they might react. I always thought of: the President, the Cabinet, other countries, the financial markets and the First Lady, not necessarily in that order.
After I thawed from freezing up knowing it was nearly impossible to keep all the audiences happy and still respond to reporters’ questions, I put that out of my mind and went the podium.
As I began, in the best of times it is not an easy job and press secretaries each have their own ‘tics’. Like Spicer, some mangle their words unintentionally but from nerves mostly, often resulting in Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel-like quotes or mispronounced names of foreign leaders. For some, as Spicer did yesterday, you start to go down a path and can't find your way back.
That's because sometimes there is that hole you tippy-toe into and then realize it leads to hell but it's too late because you're already falling in. As Spicer did yesterday when he invoked Hitler’s name.
It was a huge blunder and round about 6 p.m., before the evening news shows, Spicer appeared live on CNN to apologize for his mistake, after reportedly also calling one of the GOP’s biggest Jewish donors and, I imagine, some long talks with the chief of staff and probably the President.
We all noted that Spicer apologized -- in words and deed -- and more than once. He even acknowledged sage advice offered by Democrat Leon Panetta, who preceded him on Wolf Blitzer’s show and who served as White House chief of staff, CIA director and defense secretary. Panetta was being interviewed on something else entirely when Wolf Blitzer asked him about Spicer’s performance, what advice he would offer to him and then interrupted to take Spicer live.
This administration does not apologize, The President doesn’t and he sets the stage for his people. I gotta believe President Trump said it was okay or necessary to do in this instance. If I were the press secretary and knew the President doesn’t tolerate apologies, I wouldn’t go out there and apologize unless I had his blessing – or I was prepared to lose my job when I returned. That could portend a turning point for the Administration or more likely it was a decision to mollify the Jewish supporter(s) of Trump. It also could be a strategic move setting Spicer up to lose his job.
Frankly, I wouldn’t want Spicer’s job. The whims of this President are too ever-changing that you just can’t possibly do a good job every day. A President who looks to the winds and the cable news for his reactions to issues is not an easy person to please. And he considers himself the best at handling the media, so you can rarely do no wrong.
That is not to defend Spicer’s comments yesterday. He said the name Hitler and then just kept climbing into the hole despite reporters, in real time, giving him a chance to climb out.
He should have accepted the ladder he was offered and cleaned up his mistake immediately but I have to believe he was thinking he couldn’t back off of what he said because of the standard the President has set on “no apologies.”
What does it mean for apologies in the future? My guess is not much.