Almost four years ago, with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, a hysterical, end-of-the-world public dialogue began dominating not only the American but also the international press. Not a single day passes without an analysis or opinion piece that questions the persona of the president, his mental capacity or his expertise. These writings come close to political, science fiction (for Hungarians, this sounds familiar as we have witnessed a relentless smear campaign against the Hungarian prime minister since 2010).
In contrast to that discourse, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s book The Briefing: Politics, the Press and the President hit bookstore shelves like a breath of fresh air. This is the first-ever volume written by a close ally and associate of Trump. Spicer served on Trump’s team as communications director since the presidential elections and followed him to the White House.
Thus, we have all the makings of a true insider’s book, which, in fact, presents a diagnosis of today’s American press and the relationship between the press and the current administration. What’s more, it was Spicer himself who said that the goal of his book is to “set the record straight” and depict the hostile environment that he had to work in together with the entire presidential staff.
The media, Spicer reminds the reader, was essentially promising Trump’s defeat since the beginning of his campaign. He cites a FiveThirthyEight analysis that predicted a 71 percent Clinton victory and the New York Times’ analysis that gave Trump only a 15 percent chance of winning. When the coveted defeat didn't happen and Trump won the election, Spicer called it a "historic victory" because everyone was convinced that Clinton would win and nobody believed that Trump could get 306 electoral votes. The media, he writes, “rarely take any blame for their mistakes. Instead, they blame others. In this case, they blamed the polls, Nate Silver, Russian meddling, anything and everything but their own reporting and analysis.”
During the campaign, Trump, aka "Energizer bunny", ignored politically correct dialogue, denounced his opponents and gave them nicknames, like “Crooked Hillary,” on Twitter or at public forums. With his conscious use of Twitter, the president bypassed and continues to this day to effectively bypass traditional news outlets and speaks directly to the American people, leaving the media with “no choice but to report his tweets verbatim.” As a result, “keeping an eye out for his early morning, late-night, and weekend tweets” was part of Spicer’s “new world order.”
The author is of the opinion that "Twitter has emerged as the primary source of news for Washington politics," which has completely transformed the media who believe “that being first and sensational is better than being right. The problem is that, once tweeted or reported, a breaking story begins the narrative, and no correction ever has as much impact as the initial report, no matter how wrong it is.” Spicer offers as example the alleged disappearance of the statue of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office, which was falsely reported but provoked tremendous outrage. In his opinion, such cases benefit "neither journalism, nor democracy."
As he looks back at the 182 days spent in the White House, the author doesn’t shy away from recalling not only the achievements (upsetting the mainstream media’s dominance at the daily press briefings), but also the downfalls and the popular memes they inspired (Chapter Nine: Memorable Moments, Memes And Mistakes). According to the author, his fate was already sealed when the press created a political topic from the number of attendees at the presidential inauguration. Spicer – wrongly - tried to resolve the otherwise insignificant media frenzy with force. During his first press conference he read a statement that concluded by saying that there have never been so many participants at a presidential inauguration. However, at the end, contrary to tradition, members of the press were forbidden to raise questions. The ensuing media frenzy inspired what would become Melissa McCarthy’s 10-minute sketches on Saturday Night Live, in which she imitates Spicer as the White House press secretary. His biggest regret was saying that “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” unlike the Syrian president, while he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”
The book builds on a good structure, while the prose is easy to read. The first and last chapters detail the very last moments spent in the White House, neatly framing the whole volume. The book presents the president as though he could do no wrong, according to a critic at the Wall Street Journal. However, Spicer notes several times that he didn’t always agree with what the president was doing and the way he was doing it – e.g., his personal, unsupervised phone calls with journalists. The quality of the book is overshadowed by minor, fact checking-related issues. At one point, the author mistakenly states that Barack Obama held a press conference as early as 1999, while the British spy compiling the Steele files is consistently referred to as Michael instead of his real name, Christopher. On occasion, we do feel as though crucial details have gone missing. Spicer goes into a lengthy discussion about the specific political instructions concerning border protection but fails to explore the topic in depth. On the other hand, he does shed light on the secrets of his chosen trade, providing detailed discussions about the press conference schedules, industry standards and propositions for their reform, which make the book a fascinating, thoroughly gripping read.
In sum, we might put the book down feeling like it didn’t quite hit the mark due to the aforementioned shortcomings, but as the author put it: “It is an amazing job, but it’s a lonely job that very few people have had and even fewer can appreciate in the current environment.”
Sean Spicer, The Briefing: The Politics, The Press and The President. Regnery Publishing, 2018.
Rajmund Fekete is a historian and Chief of Staff to State Secretary Zoltán Kovács.
Translated from the Hungarian original, which was first published here.