There are gaffes and there are “even Hitler didn’t gas his own people” gaffes.
From “alternative facts,” to record setting inaugural numbers that didn’t occur to budget directors thumbing their nose at the poor, the current presidential administration has been nothing if not amusing — in a Machiavellian way.
But Tuesday, Sean Spicer found the “Hitler didn’t gas his own people,” moment. It was, to borrow a phrase, kind of like when Fonzie jumped the shark.
Oddly enough, even as I watched it happen, I just knew there was no way to stop it. Unfolding in slow motion before my eyes, not 15 feet from me, was a man dissolving into his own words as he tried to paint the leader of Syria as more gruesome than Hitler; a statement that, if it had been simply made, might’ve played far better than the purple prose Spicer attempted to offer on the fly.
Spontaneity and purple prose have served Spicer better in the past than in this situation, which found the press secretary trying overly hard to stress how the Trump administration cares for the victims of a gas attack conducted by the Syrian government. This follows Monday’s briefing, where I got the first question and asked bluntly: “How come it is okay to bomb Syria, but not help out Syrian refugees?”
Spicer stumbled with an answer then by defending the bombing as helping out potential refugees and never addressed current refugees who need homes. But that was nothing compared to Tuesday.
It was a bit of a surprise because, to be frank, Spicer has recently served the President adequately on other issues. The way he has handled the Russian scandal has helped more than anything else to take some of the heat off of the President with two clever moves. First, he said the president had no problem with a subpoena and testimony of an administration official. That defused part of it. And he just denied it with a flat-lipped “No.” He didn’t try to dance. He answered questions head on — always a better strategy.
Watching him do this, you get the feeling Spicer impresses himself with his own work from time to time, but not in a selfish way. He knows he’s hit a home run for his boss. Spicer simply suffers from the old Babe Ruth syndrome: always swinging for the rafters. His batting average is getting better, but his strikeouts remain spectacular. The guy doesn’t do anything small. You got to give him that.
So watching him Tuesday as he stumbled, you still weren’t sure what would come next.
Then the moment came. He said “Even Hitler didn’t gas his own people.”
That was the highlight. The inaccurate Holocaust references and ‘heading to the Holocaust Center’ were just aftershocks.
First silence. Then groans. No one dared say a word. It was too much. Clocks stopped. Paint peeled. Mouths dropped. What could you say? No one could think of anything.
Except me. I shot off my mouth.
“He gassed the Jews,” I shouted in the press room.
Spicer sputtered. “Thank you. Yeah, yeah, I know.”
That was the highlight. The inaccurate Holocaust references and 'heading to the Holocaust Center’ were just aftershocks.
It makes for a great story. It’s almost an episode of Veep.
But how important was the story? On the same day as Spicer’s monumental mistake, the press received two briefings on the ongoing strife in Syria – one at the Pentagon and one at the White House. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made another dapper appearance in the West Wing, selling his latest budget cuts and a historic executive branch realignment.
His proposed budget cuts could decimate the economy in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland; it’s just an added bonus those counties vote heavily democratic. Given a chance to clean up some of the remarks he’d made previously regarding after-school lunch programs for the poor, Mulvaney tried to walk back some of the statements but still came off like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No Food For You!”.
Sorry. Actually, Mulvaney reminds me of a real believer…of anything he can sell.
Meanwhile, North Korea is rattling on with its usual empty threats. Turns out Spicer’s best moment in the press briefing was not the corny joke about the annual Easter Egg Hunt at the White House (prudence dictates I do not repeat it here); no, his best moment was in response to a reporter asking about potential threats from North Korea. Spicer replied, “It ain’t a threat if you can’t do it.”
(I think he could’ve sold it better with a John Wayne voice, but that’s just me.)
As for the gaffe; Spicer has apologized. It’s apparently over. Okay, some in Congress are calling for his head. He might go down. He might not. I’ve seen other press secretaries recover from devastating gaffes. In Spicer’s case, Nancy Pelosi came forward demanding he should be fired — which would almost guarantee that Trump won’t fire him, if for no other reason than he can’t stand Pelosi.
The story extends for another news cycle. Once again, we have all been diverted from what is real to chase the prurient and salacious.
Did Spicer commit a gaffe, and an incredibly stupid gaffe at that? Absolutely. Making it during Passover? Priceless.
But the story of the moment is merely a momentary story.
War in the Middle East, the budget, Russian interference in our election, North Korean and Chinese relations, another school shooting, Syrian airstrikes, the Supreme Court, healthcare, tax cuts and whether or not the Redskins sign Kirk Cousins – those stories are all more important than Spicer’s gaffe as he tried to use hyperbole to sell how horrified everyone in the Administration is about the Syrian gas attack.
The bottom line with Spicer is that he does actually get along with the media fairly well off-camera. He understands — or seems to understand — the President’s intent, and has become better at communicating the message. He also has taken some encouraging steps in transparency, so I think we’re destined to see his stand-up routine for a while, which gives me a great wealth of material for columns.
But boy, does Spicer’s gaffe — seen live and recorded for all posterity — play better on television for the briefest of shallow moments.