WASHINGTON — When he was growing up in Barrington, Rhode Island, Sean Michael Spicer would watch newsmakers in Washington and wonder, “How did that person get that job?”
Now 45, he’s White House press secretary. Every day Spicer tangles with a demanding and skeptical press corps. What makes the task harder is that he has to answer their questions in a way that works for a big-league grudge-master, President Donald Trump.
He also has become a punchline on “Saturday Night Live,” where comedian Melissa McCarthy plays a caricature of the solidly built communications pro. And when he goes shopping, he risks having angry liberals call him names, as happened recently at an Apple store.
He may well have the hardest job inside the Washington beltway.
How did Spicer get the job? The path began at a Catholic boarding school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Political science teacher J. Clifford Hobbins recalled, “When Sean attended Portsmouth Abbey, it was an all-boys school; it was a tough place, a competitive place. You really had to learn to make your way, to survive. You had to learn to be part of the group, a contributing member of the community. These lessons served Sean well after he left the school and throughout his career path.”
In high school, Spicer got a taste for politics and began volunteering in Republican campaigns. Hobbins helped Spicer win a senior-year internship with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Democrat. Then Spicer went back to the GOP.
He attended Connecticut College, where his conservative politics did not escape the notice of the school paper, which once referred to him as “Sean Sphincter.” Spicer wrote a letter to the paper to complain; the College Voice blamed spell-checker for the error.
As a college student, Spicer was passionate about sailing and politics, but the ambitious Rhode Islander was open to advice. During a school trip to New York, a Wall Street titan suggested that students study Japanese. Spicer enrolled in a Japanese course but fared so poorly that a college administrator wrote a note of concern. Spicer took the hint and dropped the class. The lesson he learned was to trust his gut, Spicer later said, and to focus on the things he loved – like politics.
After graduating in 1993, Spicer worked as an unpaid volunteer compiling clippings for Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas. He then served on the staff of a series of GOP congressmen and committees.
“Many of us in our 20s really wanted to be press secretary for the president of the United States. That’s your dream,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who became friends with Spicer when they both worked for rank-and-file House Republicans. “And he stayed long enough to achieve it.”
BRIEF EXIT FROM POLITICS
In 2004 when he was a spokesman for the House Budget Committee, Spicer married Rebecca Miller, then a TV news producer, a union announced in The New York Times. Rebecca Spicer worked in the White House during the tenure of President George W. Bush before she became communications strategist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
Spicer, who refused to be interviewed for this story, and his wife now have two children and live in Alexandria, Virginia.
Spicer left government when he co-founded a boutique public relations firm, Endeavor Global Strategies, in 2009. But he was drawn back into politics at the Republican National Committee in 2011.
“He didn’t get the combat out of his system yet,” Bonjean said with a shrug.
Spicer found himself drawn into the Trump orbit in 2016, when it became clear that the reality TV star could win the GOP nomination. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus saw a need to provide Trump with organizational support. It fell to Spicer, as an RNC strategist and communications pro, to move into Trump Tower in September to help groom the GOP nominee.
After Trump won, a series of cable TV talking heads and other hopefuls knocked on Trump’s door to audition for the job of press secretary. In the end, Trump went with Spicer, who had fought so hard for the candidate during the campaign.
Spicer actually took a pay cut to work at the White House. According to a recent financial disclosure form, he earned $260,000 when he worked for the RNC and now earns $179,000 as White House press secretary.
RULES FOR LIFE
In 2014, Spicer returned to his high school alma mater to share his “17 rules for life.” His rules, Spicer told students, aren’t original or mind-blowing. They’re just common-sense values that should work for everyone.
It turns out those 17 rules could be especially helpful for Spicer’s new boss. Spicer’s second rule is “Think before you speak (tweet, post, upload).” His ninth rule: “Perception is reality,” which means, he explained, “what people think of you is what matters.”
And Spicer’s fourth rule: “Take responsibility when you screw up. You will be rewarded.”
Spicer didn’t quite stick to his rulebook during his first White House briefing. It was a hastily announced affair the day after the inauguration during which Spicer took no questions but used the opportunity to berate reporters for “deliberately false reporting,” while the press secretary himself made a number of factually incorrect statements about Inauguration Day crowd size.
“Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall. That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” Spicer told the press.
‘PANTS ON FIRE’
To most eyes, Spicer’s debut briefing was a flop. PolitiFact rated Spicer’s talking points “pants on fire” false. The Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gave Spicer “four Pinocchios. “This is an appalling performance by the new press secretary,” Kessler wrote. “He managed to make a series of false and misleading claims in service of a relatively minor issue.”
“He’s had a long reputation for being a straight shooter, but from the first day of Trump’s presidency, when he blasted the press for writing things that were factually true, he lost a lot of credibility,” noted Marc Sandalow, a former journalist who now serves as associate academic director of the University of California Washington Center.
“If Sean Spicer insists on something from the podium,” Sandalow said, “you don’t know whether or not it’s him being earnest or his boss telling him to spin, if not say things that are outright not true.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, agreed that the first briefing got Spicer off to a bad start.
“But he very quickly” made up for it, Fleischer said. “I think he’s doing very well. The press secretary’s job is to represent the boss, to say what the boss wants to be said and in some ways to say it the way the boss would say it.”
“He’s even bringing humor into the room, which is really important,” Fleischer observed.
It’s especially important to enjoy a good laugh when “Saturday Night Live” turns you into a parody character, Spicey, who guzzles industrial-sized gum and uses his podium on wheels to mow down pesky reporters.
“Don’t make me make the podium move,” Spicer joked during a recent briefing.
That doesn’t mean he loves every minute of “SNL.” He told “Extra” he found the Alec Baldwin portrayal of Trump to be “mean,” not funny.
Spicer’s sense of humor was evident when he sent his Portsmouth Abbey teacher a photo of himself dressed as an Easter Bunny at a White House Easter egg hunt during the Bush presidency, with a note that said, “Look at me now.”
You can laugh, but know this: In real life, Bonjean said, none of his friends ever call the White House spokesman “Spicey.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.
SPICER’S RULES FOR LIFE
Rule 1: “There is no job for anything.”
Rule 2; “Think before you speak. (tweet, post, upload)”
Rule 3: “Showing up is half the battle… showing up early and often is the other half”
Rule 4: “Take responsibility when you screw up. You will be rewarded.”
Rule 5: “Never give up”
Rule 6: “Be prepared”
Rule 7: “Have a plan… but be flexible”
Rule 8: “Trust your gut”
Rule 9: “Perception is reality” Means: “What people think of you is what matters.”
Rule 10: “Get beyond Cory’s Lane… and Newport”
Rule 11; “Make good friends/find a mentor”
Rule 12: “Say thank you.”
Rule 13: “Your mail can always be addressed to occupant.”
Rule 14: “Have a relationship with God.”
Rule 15: “It’s true, it is who you know.”
Rule 16: “Follow your mother’s advice. It’s not what you say but how you say it.”
Rule 17: “Life is short, leave it on the field.”