News & Politics

Sean Spicer Was on the Emmys Because DC Villains Always Get a Comeback Tour

The former White House press secretary isn't the first disgraced politico to try to rehabilitate his image, and he probably won't be the last.

Sean Spicer and Stephen Colbert backstage at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

The howls in the Microsoft Theater over Sean Spicer‘s cameo at the beginning of Sunday night’s Emmy Awards had barely died down before the internet outrage machine spun into gear.

Spicer’s guest role, thought up by host Stephen Colbert to lampoon Spicer’s infamously false statements about crowd sizes, was widely denounced. Esquire called it “profoundly unfunny.” Slate called it a “sickening, cynical laugh grab.” And the Daily Beast ruled that “Sean Spicer does not get to be funny.” The tweets and takes continue to pile up.

Those criticisms of Spicer’s appearance might feel more profound if the Emmys were Spicer’s first post-White House appearance. A nationally broadcast awards show is certainly the biggest platform he’s had since leaving the press secretary’s job, but the rehabilitation of Sean Spicer was under way well before Colbert summoned him on stage to riff on the January 21 briefing in which he insisted that President Trump‘s inauguration was the most-witnessed ever. (Period!) During his month-long White House coda after ceding the briefing room to Anthony Scaramucci and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer got some nice headlines for himself when he finally met Pope Francis. Spicer’s now on the paid-speaking circuit and a regular guest on Fox News. He’ll also be a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics this fall.

In other words, Spicer—who had a very ordinary Republican Party career before he worked for Trump—is behaving a lot like his predecessors. The role of the White House press secretary is to parrot the administration line. While we hope that everyone in that job speaks nothing but whole truths, every recent inhabitant has served up healthy doses of obfuscations, fudged numbers, and straight-up lies in service of agendas that large swaths of the country found unpalatable. And yet they almost all go on to have lucrative post-White House careers. Former President Barack Obama‘s first two press secretaries, Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney, are now executives at McDonald’s and Amazon, respectively. Dana Perino went from the last days of the George W. Bush administration to a daily gig at Fox News; Bush’s first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, has been a consultant to the NFL and other sports organizations and a paid speaker since leaving the White House in 2003.

The media rehabilitation tour is a rite of passage for Washington figures, and they sometimes involve a bit of an assist from the entertainment industry. Two days after he resigned from the White House, Fleischer–who defended torture from the lectern and said after 9/11 that “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do”–was a guest on the Late Show With David Letterman. Letterman brought up some tough subjects, but the interview was still played mostly for laughs. And yet one would be hard-pressed to make the case the appearance dented the Late Show‘s reputation.

A better example might be former Representative Anthony Weiner‘s turn in Sharknado 3 in 2015. Weiner, already on record as the aggressor in two sexting scandals and a year away from his third, appeared briefly as a NASA official who is eventually killed by a tornado-borne shark. There were no outcries of disgust at SyFy or the Sharknado franchise for training a spotlight on a man who is now a registered sex offender awaiting sentencing on federal obscenity charges.

So is Spicer’s rehabilitation more egregious because he worked for Trump, or because it happened at a major awards show? His bit notwithstanding, the Emmy broadcast was packed with anti-Trump moments as winners accepted their prizes. Alec Baldwin mocked Trump after winning a supporting-actor prize for playing the President on Saturday Night Live. Donald Glover zinged Trump when he won for Atlanta. Kate McKinnon thanked Hillary Clinton when she won for her SNL roles. Master of None writer Lena Waithe accepted her award with a moving speech about inclusivity. Veep executive producer David Mandel snuck in an impeachment joke when the HBO series won best comedy.

Spicer’s presence at the top of the show and some parties afterward might be unsavory, but it doesn’t nullify the winners’ Emmys or negate speeches like Waithe’s. Nor should people who oppose Trump count on major awards shows to be sturdy vehicles for progressive messages. Awards broadcasts are some of the most ephemeral television, but they’re also designed for the biggest audience possible, so the jokes are broad, hammy, and—like nearly 60 percent of the country—generally anti-Trump.

As for whether showing up to the Emmys actually absolves Spicer of his role in the Trump Administration, it’s safe to wager that the volume of immediate outrage that followed suggests that his cameo did not. If anything, it reinforced his record. Spicer made a fool of himself with that January 21 tirade about crowd sizes; Melissa McCarthy sealed that fate on February 5 when she debuted her SNL impersonation. And unlike  Fleischer, Spicer did the job in an era when nearly all of his statements are preserved on readily accessible video. Finding a transcript or video of Fleischer justifying the Iraq war or defending torture takes come clever Googling; Spicer’s always going to be burdened by YouTube results of his press briefings and McCarthy’s sketches.

Spicer’s reintroduction goes far beyond the Emmys. But it’s more symptomatic of the way the permanent political class works than the trappings of Trumpworld. Spicer also has his upcoming Harvard gig, which he’ll share with former Trump campaign manager and alleged reporter-grabber Corey Lewandowski. And he’ll get his paid speeches, consulting fees, and perhaps even a book deal or two.

Washington has rehabbed disgraced politicos for as long as its been churning them out, and when the cameras never turn off, it’s easier than ever to attempt a rebranding. Bush left office after mismanaging two wars and overseeing the worst economic collapse in 80 years. These days, he cuts the figure of a lovable grandpa who paints on the side. Bill Clinton isn’t just a president who hurt the poor with welfare reform and whose term was riddled with personal scandals; he’s the guy who loves balloons.

While he’s probably not going to be any future White House’s spokesman, Spicer, 45, is just as unlikely to spend the rest of his life in hiding, only to be trotted out when the internet decides he deserves a good flogging. He’s on his way to joining the Ari Fleischers, Joe Lockharts, and Ron Zieglers of the world—former presidential flacks who cash in. As Spicer’s one-time tormenter Scaramucci said after bumping him off the briefing room lectern, “I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money.”

Spicer’s comeback tour is the distasteful rule, not the outrageous exception in Washington. But for anyone who’s got the energy to single out Spicer again, the season premiere of Saturday Night Live is less than two week away, and Spicey’s been angling for a cameo.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.