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Don’t Feel Bad for Sean Spicer

So long (sort of), and thanks for all the memes

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Sean Spicer can’t even get quitting right.

On Friday, Donald Trump’s press secretary, who has been distressed in the way that Atlantis faced some minor flooding, apparently decided he’d had enough. With the appointment of financier Anthony Scaramucci — alias, no joke, “the Mooch” — as White House communications director despite Spicer’s “vehement” complaints, he resigned at last. But by later in the afternoon, he attempted, as he has so many other times this year, to walk the development back, clarifying that he will stay on “through August” — an absurd five-week post-quitting extension that would make even George Costanza proud. Fox News announced that he will appear on Friday night’s episode of Hannity — side by side with the Mooch himself, in what will undoubtedly be less a display of Trumpian unity than something out of Jerry Springer, or at least a press conference featuring Chris Christie. Perhaps the second-most-famous member of the administration has once again managed to turn what should have been a dry political affair into a circus. Spicer has bungled even slamming the door shut behind him.

Saturday Night Live’s rendition of Spicer, played by a sputtering, plasticine Melissa McCarthy, started with a portrayal of the press secretary as an angry and impudent buffoon, threatening reporters and spraying them with a water gun. This was only a mild exaggeration of Spicer’s first appearance behind the White House briefing room lectern, on January 21 — six months ago today — when he emerged to berate individual members of the press corps and angrily hold forth on the day-old administration’s laughable claims about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration.

But by the most recent Spicer sketch on May 13, McCarthy’s fourth in the role, the character had morphed into something else entirely: confused, sad, and desperate for the support of the big guy. “Mr. Trump, I need to talk to you,” asks a frantic, panting McCarthy-as-Spicer, pantomiming childlike horror. “Have you ever told me to say things that aren’t true?”

The SNL Spicer was feckless, sure, but he was, if anything, a victim of Trump: He never meant to lie or bully, he just got lost. He was, in McCarthy’s hands, not Spicer but “Spicey,” someone in way, way over his head and deeply silly, but also fundamentally and pitifully empathetic.

But you shouldn’t feel bad for Sean Spicer.

To be sure, this has by all accounts, including his own, been a grim half year for the outgoing press secretary. “In the same way that a dog can take on a resemblance to its owner,” longtime D.C. scribe Mark Leibovich wrote in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, “Spicer has acquired a swollen, hopped-up and somewhat persecuted countenance, as if he were the physical embodiment of a news cycle on steroids.” Leibovich described his attempts over the last six months to interview Spicer, who repeatedly rebuffed him, saying that to allow a more direct media spotlight would put Spicer’s job — his “current status,” in his words — in further jeopardy. Ultimately, Leibovich did spend time with Spicer, at one point watching him smear foundation across his face before a television hit. “You’re going to say that in the story,” Spicer asked, “that I’m putting on makeup?” Days after that story, Spicer is leaving, and it’s hard not to wonder if he was right about the effect the extra attention would have.

But he wasn’t fired, of course: He resigned. The end was never going to come so easily; there would be no risk — no opportunity — of a martyring. Spicer had reason to quit 10 times over. He stayed when he was ordered on day one to defend falsehoods to the press. He stayed when rumors swirled that his president considered him too short (solved with a smaller lectern) or too sloppy (solved with darker suits), and when the president’s chief strategist said that he was too fat to be on TV. He stayed when he was ordered to share his job duties with his deputy and now-replacement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. He stayed when his president, knowing how badly Spicer, a Catholic, wanted to meet the Pope, left him behind when he traveled to the Vatican with much of the White House’s senior staff. He stayed through all of it.

This was a man who had every ability to consider the only way his tenure was going to end — badly — and who still decided to carry on. Why? No, really: Why? Why would he, who had built the kind of comfortable, middle-brow political career where he could play the White House Easter bunny, tether himself to this administration, even as its members mocked him? Why would he linger in a job that he was terrible at, where each day seemingly presented new sharp objects on which he could impale himself?

And really: He was dreadful as press secretary. Perpetually flustered and easily aggravated, his briefings were chiefly characterized by panicky cycles through whichever members of the press corps he happened to spot in a given moment, moving at a clip that left him garbling words, offering up rhetorical gems like “Holocaust centers,” and lashing out at reporters. His job was never going to be an easy one, what with a staff-jockeying president intent on speaking for himself and not through his communications team. But Spicer was exceptionally, mesmerizingly bad at it.

So why stick around so long? Saturday Night Live’s conclusion, obviously, was that he was just too simple to know any better. But he’s not: He’s been in politics long enough to know what he was doing, to be able to take stock of the elevated danger of a fall as he soared to greater and greater heights, as he dominated news cycle after news cycle, as he became a household name. It’s time for him to write a tell-all book! the Twitter masses cried as news of his impending-ish White House departure made the rounds. Fat chance from someone who even now is calling his time at the lectern “an honor & a privilege.”

On Friday, Scaramucci, dressing it up as well wishes at his inaugural press briefing, gave a hint as to how things might go for Spicer, as to why they went on for so long: “I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money.”