Guy W. Farmer: I feel sorry for Sean Spicer
Having been a press spokesman for a Nevada governor (Grant Sawyer), six or seven American ambassadors, and a U.S. military action in the Caribbean (Grenada), I feel sorry for President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, who must attempt to explain what the president really meant to say on a daily basis — a near impossible task. Whatever Spicer earns for serving as the mainstream media’s whipping boy, it isn’t nearly enough.
The clumsy and unexpected firing of former FBI Director James Comey is only the latest example of a White House communications operation in near total disarray. Trump said he fired Comey because the FBI director “wasn’t doing the job” even though I suspect our president doesn’t really understand what the FBI does, nor does he understand the separation of duties between the FBI (investigations) and the Justice Department (prosecutions).
Trump fired Comey not long after he sent the hapless Spicer out to tell the media Comey had the president’s “full confidence.” However, it didn’t take Trump long to go from full confidence to no confidence, and his decision appeared to catch some of his senior advisers by surprise as they scrambled to explain why Trump had fired Comey. As usual, it fell to Vice President Mike Pence and Spicer to explain what the president really meant to say.
The main problem of being a spokesperson for President Trump is he changes his policy positions from day to day, and even from minute to minute. So when Spicer enters the White House Press Room to brief the media, he can’t be sure the president won’t undercut him with an off-the-cuff remark and/or an ill-advised “Tweet.” As I’ve said before, if I worked in the White House I’d be looking for a way to disable the president’s Twitter account. So fire me!
In my own experience as a state and federal spokesperson, I was fortunate to represent officials who were clear about their policies and who made sure I was in the room or nearby when policy decisions were made.
For example, I was press spokesman for Nevada’s gaming control agencies in 1963 when the Gaming Commission revoked Frank Sinatra’s gambling licenses for hosting infamous Chicago Godfather Sam Giancana at Sinatra’s North Lake Tahoe hotel casino, the Cal-Neva. Gov. Grant Sawyer and legendary Gaming Control Board Chairman Ed Olsen provided clear policy guidance to explain why the famous singer had to follow the same rules as everyone else. Giancana was in our “Black Book” of notorious mobsters who were banned from Nevada casinos, and that’s why Sinatra’s licenses were revoked. And that’s how we survived a national media onslaught.
And then, in 1983, when the U.S. led a multinational invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada, a rather tipsy American diplomat told a New York Times correspondent a mass grave had been discovered on the island, a page one story. I knew of no such thing and wound up crossways with a State Department spokesman who confirmed a mass grave.
When journalists queried my ambassador, Tony Gillespie, about the report he asked a key question: “What does my public affairs officer (that would be me) say?” I was vindicated because a mass grave was never found, thereby saving my diplomatic career.
I cite these personal examples to emphasize the importance of close coordination between public officials and their spokespeople.
Exactly the opposite occurs in the Trump White House, where his communications people don’t know what he’s going to do or say next.
He probably doesn’t know either, and that’s why I feel sorry for Spicer.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat and veteran journalist.