It hit me this 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.
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 on 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