I have always liked Sean Spicer, because unlike so many mindless venal D.C. political hangers-on, he occasionally plays against type. If anything he is really more of a guileless, bumbling suburban soccer dad than a real paid-up political operative.
This holds true in the ex-press secretary's new memoir, The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President. Every page is imbued with Spicer's impossibly dorky ethos. The Briefing is almost unbelievably bad even by the standards of political books — artless, repetitive (I lost count of how many times we were told as if for the first time that Spicer enjoyed sailing as a child), full of wooden dialogue, opaque. But still, I more or less enjoyed it.
I say this for a few reasons. One has to do with logistics. Reading it reminded me just how recklessly, spectacularly, almost sublimely incompetent the people responsible for most Washington books are. Could anyone of sound mind and decent moral character possibly think that The Briefing should have told the story of Spicer's entire life, that readers would care about the time college-aged Sean got an A on a paper he wrote about his campaign research internship back in the '80s or about how he sold stationery door to door as a kid in Rhode Island? What does it say when the dramatic highpoint of your 250-odd-page nonfiction project is an account of the time that the author hurt his jaw during a congressional softball game many years ago? Why did his editors allow Spicer to begin a chapter with a scene where he meets Trump and ponders the fact that they are of different backgrounds, only to allow him to carry us, with no excruciating detail spared, through his entire career in Republican political operativedom, without ever returning to the scene in question? Did they too get so bored that they didn't remember what happened at the beginning? Where was the red pen that should have been deployed against "Statistician, ABC correspondent, and editor of the influential FiveThirtyEight.com website, Nate Silver," eliminating the illiterate comma and placing some of this information after Silver's name?
Trying to imagine what it must be like to have been involved with this project is amusing, at least to me.
But mostly, I enjoyed the book because of my fascination with Spicer. Like a lot of dads, Spicer has something like a negative gift for imparting details about things like color and furniture. It is admirable that he recognizes that we generally expect these things of authors and tries his best anyway, which results in such masterpieces of description as "the White House itself is rather expansive" and "President Donald J. Trump was sitting at the end of the dining room table — a rectangular table made of polished, dark-brown wood." A table made of wood? Imagine that! When he wants to make sure we realize that he is talking about something that happened a long time ago, he notes that it "was in the days before BlackBerrys and iPhones." The advent of new technology, which seems to fascinate and confuse him simultaneously, is a recurring theme in these pages: "Then there was this new thing, the Internet," he observes before explaining that in 1994 if a campaign staffer wanted to watch news coverage but couldn't be in front of the television he would have to ask someone else for help, in which case "we would drive to his or her house, pop the VHS tape into the VCR, and hit play (if the supporter had kindly already rewound the tape before we arrived)."
As you might expect, The Briefing is also full of lame jokes. When Spicer drops a Japanese class in college during the book's interminable autobiography section, he wryly notes, "I guess a D minus in any language is still a D minus." He meets his wife Rebecca after being forced to skip an event at an upscale restaurant in Dupont Circle because he is wearing jeans and instead meets someone who effects their introduction at a venue called The Lucky Bar: "I would learn later just how aptly named The Lucky Bar is." You can almost hear the groans of his school-aged children in the van as Dan Fogelberg's Greatest Hits gives way in the five-disc changer to Kiss' Alive! and the old man cranks the volume.
Not only is Spicer a typical tech-befuddled, ugh-inducing father; he is also a very devoted son. If these pages are any indication, it would seem to be the case that he calls his mother frequently, including with his professional anxieties. At one point she tells him off for being rude on a cable news program: "That soft rebuke hit me harder than anything the press has ever said," he said. It's sweet, really. We also learn that throughout the 2016 election Michael Spicer was fighting pancreatic cancer and that he died just after Thanksgiving. Spicer's devotion to his late father is genuinely touching.
The book is also not without its surprises. Who would have guessed, for instance, that Spicer began college intent upon devoting himself to the study of East Asian languages and literature, or that he is a great admirer of the late Sen. John Chafee, the WASP mandarin, war hero, and longtime Republican moderate?
Less surprising is the fact that this book is certifiably free of reflection, conclusions, admission, or anything else that might suggest its purported author has learned anything in the conventional sense expected of persons who decide to write memoirs. It is also completely lacking in the kind of breathlessly dispensed factoids that people look for in the sort of book he has sought to produce. The Briefing is a story without an arc. Spicer has nothing to tell us about the 2016 campaign or about the Trump White House that is not obvious to anyone who consumes news. He justifiably reminds us on more than one occasion that journalists sometimes ask questions in bad faith and give zero thought to their own sloppy work, but he knew that before he took his job at the White House. The closest he comes to telling us what he really believes about President Trump and his significance is when he describes his old boss as "a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow," which tell us a great deal about Spicer's anti-talent for metaphor but nothing about the man now living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Which is not to say that he has not grown as a person. In the book's last chapter he tells us that after leaving the White House he found himself doing some Lenten reading at the advice of his pastor and reflecting on the memory of his late father. "I often wish my father could see me now. I wish that we could talk about all that has happened and share all that is yet to come. Not a day goes by that I don't think about him and how he looked at every day and every person. He lived his final days to his fullest, caring about others and focused on his family. I hope I can do the same."
I for one find it impossible wholly to dislike anyone capable of writing those sincerely kind words, even if they appear in an awful book that will be rightly forgotten in two months by everyone, possibly including its author.