It came from former presidential advisor and political pundit David Axelrod: “O.J. Simpson paroled yesterday. Sean Spicer today. Both greatly relieved.”
Axelrod was referring to President Donald Trump’s feckless press secretary, who was turned into a human piñata on Saturday Night Live for his slavish willingness to spew nonsense on behalf of the Oval Office.
Spicer made the painful discovery that all paid liars eventually make. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in the film The Outlaw Josie Wales, “Lyin’ ain’t much of a living.”
It only took Spicer six months to use up his store of credibility, to disgrace himself on the biggest political stage in the world, and to be gutted by his boss like a fifty-cent fish. Oh, I forgot; he technically resigned. Yes, and Hillary Clinton got three million illegal votes and the Mexicans are going to pay for the wall.
Spicer’s kick down the stairs is a classic example of ‘good riddance and it was no fun to know you.’
Day One on the job, he tried a little press secretary shock and awe. He attacked the media with the first of what would be many whoppers on behalf of his lying client, the president himself. Size really matters to guys like Trump. That’s why his ties dangle down around his knees, and his minions have to kiss his ample behind on the half-hour.
To feed Trump’s obsession with hyperbole and self-glorification, Spicer made the foolish assertion that Trump’s inauguration was attended by more people than any inauguration in U.S. history. He then stormed out of the White House press room without taking questions.
The reality check? Compared to the 1.8 million who attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration, the Trump celebration looked more like a down scale yard-sale. Photographs showed that the National Mall was more than half-empty for much of the “celebration”. The parade route from Capitol Hill to the White House featured several completely empty stands and thin crowds.
Spicer was apparently operating under the rules enunciated by Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes. It was Speakes who famously said: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”
The fact is, the multiplication of official spokespersons for those elected to high office is just another sign of late-term democracy in decline. These people are paid to not communicate at all, but rather to superimpose the fantasyland of their master’s political agenda on reality. They lie, and when challenged, double down on the lying.
It is interesting to note that the man who sparked Spicer’s departure, new White House “Communications” Director Anthony Scaramucci, began his job by purging his Twitter account of all his previous tweets critical of Donald Trump. So much for any commitment to transparency, telling the truth, and a new relationship with the press.
Scaramucci’s job, like Spicer’s, will obviously be to lie on behalf of the president, perhaps in a better suit, perhaps with a slightly more reverent vocabulary, but to lie nonetheless.
Scaramucci is too much of a Wall Street shark not to realize that his tenure in the job will be like the life cycle of a Mayfly. But while there, you can count on him to send whatever reputation he has into oblivion with his overblown Trump worship disguised as loyalty to the office of president.
Canadians have seen precisely the same phenomenon with their prime ministers in recent years. Stephen Harper went through nine, count them, nine directors of communications during his nine years in office. The math is not difficult. It takes roughly a year for these press suppressors to render themselves useless, stripped of any credibility they might have brought into the job by their incessant discommunication.
Harper hated the media, as he hated all forms of information over which he had little or no control. He was obsessed with dealing out the Ottawa press corps and controlling the message in a self-flattering way. In other words, he approached the media as though it were a tropical disease to be treated with harsh medicine.
That medicine included keeping secret the location of cabinet meetings so the press could not scrum the PM and his ministers as they left the Tuesday morning meetings. The PMO communications operation demanded that media questioners at press conferences go on a list — a practice that allowed the PMO to pick out sympathetic reporters from supportive news agencies.
In the end, Harper even took the media’s chairs away in the old parliamentary reading room, an exquisite fact reported by the Star’s great, veteran reporter Les Whittington. That left them cordoned off behind a rope, shouting their questions from the back of the room.
More often than not, Harper substituted photo-ops for press conferences or interviews. He also refused to inform journalists in a timely manner of his travel plans. That way, there was little time for members of the press to arrange their own travel to cover his activities. That left the PM fielding naïve questions at many of his events from local media not up to speed on what was going on in Ottawa.
What was Harper’s media heaven? Hiring American presidential press secretaries like Ari Fleischer to shore up his image. And as one of Harper’s communications directors, Dimitri Soudas explained, the press could be almost completely dealt out by using new social platforms to directly manage public opinion. The tweet as a fit replacement for the interview or press conference. Not hard to figure out who loses in that arrangement.
How dedicated to smothering the press were Harper’s short-lived media managers? In the case of Sara MacIntyre, she carried her zeal to control the press into provincial politics as former B.C. premier Christy Clark’s press secretary. MacIntyre actually inserted herself in front of cameras when the media tried to question Clark. She told reporters that the premier wasn’t taking questions, but if they wanted to take her picture they could. Pure Harper communications strategy. “Style,” Soudas wrote in his Master’s thesis, “has come to trump substance.”
The Trudeau administration has done a better job than Harper of attempting to answer questions, and more importantly, to do so truthfully. But there are disturbing signs that this administration too believes that the information at its disposal belongs to government, not the people.
When ex-cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo was fired, there was no explanation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When the second in command in the Canadian Forces, Adm. Mark Norman, was relieved of his duties, there was no attempt at an explanation from the PM. When 235 military personnel and public servants working on the replacement fighters for Canada’s F-18s were forced to sign a lifetime gag-order about their work, no explanation from the PM.
And it continues. iPolitics recently reported that Governor-General designate Julie Payette had been charged in 2011 with assault in the United States, a charge that was subsequently dropped for reasons that no one knows.
When our reporter called Justin Trudeau’s communications director, Kate Purchase, for reaction, he got a terse “no comment.”
If Payette were being taken into a law firm or private company at a senior level that response might have been appropriate. But when it involves one of the highest and most important public appointments in the land, Purchase’s response is flat out irresponsible.
Was the PMO aware of the incident that led to the charge before he made his decision? It’s a simple yes or no question.
If not, the vetting was amateurish and damaging, just as it was with Harper in the appointment of the larcenous Arthur Porter to the chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee. If he were aware, why wouldn’t the PMO share details of what they found, including why that assault charge was dropped, and why it was not an impediment to appointing Payette as Governor General?
It may be that Telford and her counterparts in every political party that achieves power are the wave of the future. Hillary Clinton’s communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign, Jennifer Palmieri, shared her thoughts on that subject with the Washington Post.
Palmieri argued that there are so many communications platforms available in the digital age, the clock may have run out on institutional reporting. Palmieri posed a question: why do 50 reporters in Washington deserve special access to the White House not available to other outlets and the general public?
I’ll tell you why. The alternative to coverage by journalists immersed in the issues is Trump’s bogus tweets, Justin Trudeau’s selfies and no comments, and the fabrications of press secretaries like Sean Spicer.
When it finally gets to that point, we’re all lost in space.
Author: Michael Harris