White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to have done some serious reflecting in the time between his car crash of a presser on Saturday and the first of his regular daily conferences on Monday.
Maybe Sunday night’s victory by his beloved New England Patriots to book themselves yet another Super Bowl appearance had improved his mood and he kicked off Monday’s meeting with a joke about how Josh Earnest will retain his title as "most popular press secretary" for the next few days.
Unsurprisingly, given the tone of Saturday’s interaction with the press, the gag was "met with tumbleweeds" in the briefing room according to The New York Times’ White House correspondent Maggie Haberman.
But the Spicer on display Monday was much more familiar as the savvy PR operator and fixture on news networks we got to know over the past six years while he was chief strategist and communications director at the RNC.
Always robust - nothing wrong with that, but it has to work both ways - he allowed significant time for questions and even rolled back on Saturday’s, frankly ludicrous, claim that President Trump’s inauguration drew the biggest live crowd in history.
He did, however, continue to insist the inauguration had the largest-ever live audience when factoring in online and social media traffic along with TV viewers worldwide and live crowds in DC, though he hadn’t made that clear on Saturday.
Spicer was more conciliatory on Monday and said "our intention was never to lie to you" and "I want to make sure we have a healthy relationship."
He even gave some belated recognition to the extraordinary and unprecedented Women’s March gatherings in over 600 cities around the world. "He [Trump] has a healthy respect for the First Amendment. This is what makes our country so beautiful," said Spicer, though you have to wonder why this more conciliatory note couldn’t have been struck on Saturday.
There was still room to score a point as he called first on the New York Post (rather than, as is traditional, The Associated Press), Christian Broadcasting Network, Univision (an olive branch despite getting the reporter’s name wrong?), and Fox News in the questions segment of Monday’s conference, although the likely trend for going beyond the usual suspects had already been flagged up by Spicer.
Eventually, everyone got to have their say, and the interactions provided some hope that a productive ongoing relationship could be established between the new government and the DC press pack.
It was all in stark contrast to Saturday’s three-minute haranguing of the press corps, delivered in hurried and breathless tones seemingly driven from behind the scenes by Spicer’s boss President Donald Trump, who continues to rage about what he perceives as a lack of recognition of the weight of support that propelled him into power.
At one point on Sunday, once Kellyanne Conway had weighed in with her ridiculous "alternative facts" explanation of Spicer’s claims in Saturday’s presser, it seemed the best policy for the press might be to simply boycott the direct daily communication route and rely on its own standalone reporting.
Indeed, on Monday Jeff Ballou, president of the National Press Club, was moved to say: "The NPC welcomes a healthy discussion and debate on the stories of the day. However, it's absurd and unacceptable to insult and impugn the motives of credentialed journalists for accurate reporting… We do not expect or anticipate the White House to like every story written about it. We do expect and anticipate that journalists will be free and able to cover this or any other administration."
The media couldn’t completely own the high ground, given the embarrassing story from Time’s Zeke Miller about the fictional removal of the Martin Luther King Jr. bust from the Oval Office, for which he subsequently quickly apologized but which gave Trump, Spicer, and Conway plenty of ammunition to continue their press-bashing. Trump called the media "among the worst humans on earth" in his address to the CIA on Saturday.
"There’s a constant theme to undercut the enormous support he has," said Spicer Monday, which the Trump camp finds "unbelievably frustrating."
Well, yes, maybe so. But they might want to reflect on how frustrating President Obama found constant nonsensical speculation about, for example, his birth certificate - fueled principally by prime movers such as the newly installed President Donald Trump.
Now they are in the White House and not in campaign mode Spicer, Trump, and the rest of the administration’s entourage are going to need thicker skins to endure the rough and tumble of daily politics and interaction with the media.
While it’s perfectly acceptable to exercise the right to "go out there and correct the record," it is never good practice to engage in practices that open yourself up to accusations of lying, propaganda, or comparisons with George Orwell’s dystopian vision in 1984.
Sometimes you have to take the high ground, suffer the slings and arrows, and move on.
I think in his heart of hearts Spicer knows this. He got pretty choked up last week in an interview with Robin Meade, host of HLM’s Morning Express, when he explained the significance of his new role for a "kid from Rhode Island": "You recognize what an honor it is and what a responsibility you have."
He also knows he has become the story and is receiving unprecedented personal exposure and coverage, from his views on Dippin’ Dots ice cream to alternative facts to his choice of suits through whether or not he should swallow his chewing gum, which is never a good thing for a PR person.
Spicer needs to normalize the daily White House press briefings quickly, fade out of the spotlight himself, and concentrate on the vast array of stories that are going to emerge from Washington over the coming weeks that have fundamental implications for the country.
It would also help if he had a word in his boss' ear and tried to persuade him there really is an upside in having a productive dialogue with the media and that journalists are not all horrible human beings - after all, this is a relationship business.