Matthew Walther

Pressing back

Under Trump, the White House press briefing has changed out of all recognition — at last

Pressing back
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Washington, DC

I hate to admit it, but I think I’m falling in love with Sean Spicer. No doubt Donald Trump’s stocky, gum-chewing, sartorially challenged press secretary will strike many readers as an unlikely object of passion. But it’s hard not to get red-hot for a man capable of inspiring so much outrage among the most boring, self-important people in America.

As press secretary, Spicer’s only real job is to run the President’s daily press briefing, one of those bizarre, quasi-official American institutions — like the State of the Union address or the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn — whose utility no one ever seems to question. It’s the closest thing we have to Prime Minister’s Questions, except that instead of, say, Bernie Sanders needling the commander-in-chief about unemployment figures or heath care, it’s a bunch of hacks talking to a PR man. During Obama’s time in office, the briefing always reminded me of that old cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog enjoy a quiet lunch together — people who go to the same parties and pretend to cry at one another’s funerals asking niggling questions and feigning outrage over non-controversies.

For those of us who were allergic to school, even the format of the briefing is insufferable: bodies arranged in rows with hands raised, all of them having spasmodic muscular contractions at the idea of being given the opportunity to make some show-offy pseudo-point. The only difference is that there are no jocks, class clowns or even bullies: everyone is a nerd.

Like so much else in Washington, the briefing’s character has been altered, I hope forever, by Trump. What was once a boring tickle-fest for white liberals is now a kind of orgy of pouting and breathless self-aggrandisement. For the mainstream press, Spicer’s first offence was to install screens allowing him to take questions from reporters across the country: an agreeably egalitarian sop to the hard-working journos of places such as Fall River, Massachusetts. Even worse has been his lack of deference to national newspapers and cable TV channels in favour of Breitbart, LifeSiteNews and other dubious right-wing outlets. I suppose it’s all very dismaying if you’re the sort of person who thinks that asking whether a thrice-married serial philanderer who has appeared in a Playboy video opposes legalised contraception is a vital contribution to our national discourse.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Spicer work on television, the briefings are like Woodstock: you have to be there to get the full effect. The first thing you notice is that the briefing room itself, which used to be an indoor swimming pool before it was adapted by Nixon for the present purpose, is very small. Cynical as I am, I was astonished to realise that behind the chairs and the risers is a Keurig coffee brewer and a soda machine. Call me crazy, but this doesn’t look like ground zero in the war against fascism. (Would you accept a Pepsi from Hitler, much less pay him for one?)

Nearly all the chairs are assigned in advance by the White House Correspondents’ Association to very big names. The rest of us have to fight for our seats — and our lives. Outside of a combat zone you are unlikely ever to find people invested with a greater sense of purpose. They certainly have a very lofty conception of journalism’s role in safeguarding our cherished freedoms. If you don’t think the word ‘sorry’ can be uttered with contempt, much less deployed as an insult, you’ve clearly never heard April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks snapping at another reporter who, having been called on by Spicer, dared to follow up on her question before April had decided she was finished. Nor is this frenetic and omnidirectional intensity restricted to the people asking the questions. A few weeks ago a colleague and I were nearly trampled to death by a monomaniacal cameraman.

‘Would you guys move? I’ve gotta feed this material!’ he shouted, as if the fact that we were composed of matter rather than pure spirit were an affront to press freedom.

‘OK, bud,’ I said, determined not to take any guff.

‘Don’t “bud” me, dude.’

‘OK, my dude.’

Half the fun is watching and listening in on other reporters. It reminds you of the difference between people for whom journalism is a vocation and those of us who simply fell into it. You’ll be standing there pretending to tweet or email, trying to decide whether you should go for another smoke — easier to do on the White House grounds than in almost any bar in the country — when suddenly a woman bites furiously at her granola bar, like Ozzy going after the head of a bat, without even ceasing to type. Then one of the old lore-stuffed would-be sages carrying nothing but a notebook and a pen will say, to no one in particular, ‘There was a time in this press room when at least somebody was carrying a flask.’

If the press briefing is a circus, the honorary ringmaster is Glenn Thrush of the New York Times, who has built his reputation on in-depth interviews with Hillary Clinton, eliciting such gems as, ‘Well, but fly on an airplane, the whole thing makes no sense to me. Does it make sense to you?’ Thrush’s trademark is his fedora, which he probably thinks makes him look like one of those haggard old newspapermen from the days when reporters were more or less perpetually sozzled. He must be one of the only people in America who can pace around holding his phone sideways saying, ‘Hey, can I kiss your ass for like two minutes?’ with a straight face.

In the presence of such exemplars it is possible, if you’re not careful, to end up feeling inadequate. Everybody seems to be so good at their jobs, so smooth, so confident with their icy, fact-enhanced contempt, whereas I can barely remember my wife’s birthday. How, I remember thinking at the last briefing I attended, was I going to come up with one of those appropriately cutting impossible-to-answer questions, with the requisite follow-up statistics about the number of secondary school boys in counselling because they were denied access to the girls’ bathroom?

The answer turned out to be that I just needed to start firing off text messages to friends and colleagues. One came back with: ‘Has there been any movement on appointing a new ambassador for international religious freedom? Is Ken Starr’s name still being floated?’ With its gasping urgency about an unimportant-sounding, perhaps even fake position that I and everyone else at the briefing, including, no doubt, Spicer, had never heard of, I considered that the perfect question. Too bad I wasn’t called on.

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.