The bully pulpit sits empty and unused most of the time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But lately it’s been over-used.
When Teddy Roosevelt first used the term, he meant it in the most positive and complimentary way. He was referring to the power of the presidency of the United States to command public attention and positively inspire noble outcomes throughout the nation and the world.
Today, the bully pulpit of the American presidency commands more attention than ever before in a wide, wide wireless world. But it is not always the sort of attention audiences consider positive, and certainly not noble. It isn’t really a pulpit at all; it can be anything from a lectern to a tweeting smartphone. But ever since it has been connected to President Donald Trump, it is very much recognized the world over for its bullying. And certainly not in a sense that Teddy Roosevelt would recognize or respect.
In his campaign for president, Trump used his bullying playground ways to demean the face of a female opponent, the stature of a male opponent, and the father and also the wife of another opponent. And most shamefully — in perhaps the most soulless act ever committed by anyone who became president — Trump mimicked at length the physical disability of a reporter who said he could not confirm one of Trump’s lies (a fake claim that he’d seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on 9/11). Just imagine being a parent watching that video with your child who is a victim of, say, cerebral palsy; Trump has never apologized for that most reprehensible moment.
Now this: The bully pulpit of the Trump presidency has been extended, week after week, to the lectern of the White House news media briefing room. There, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds forth and often seems to be coming untethered and sometimes unglued — as he turns his briefings into debates, frequently picking fights with journalists who ask questions he does not like. At times Spicer seems to mimic Trump’s bullying ways. It has made Spicer famous — comic actress Melissa McCarthy best capturing his worst in “Saturday Night Live” portrayals that are over-the-top and yet sometimes seem to be underplaying his real intent. As when she transforms the lectern into a moving battering ram and attacks journalists with it.
On Tuesday, Spicer was somehow moved into a bullying mode (mercifully his lectern remained unmoved) when he was asked an acceptable question by journalist April Ryan, who has covered presidents for two decades for the American Urban Radio Networks. She asked about how Trump’s White House hoped to accomplish its goals while coping with its other problems: “You’ve got other things going on. You’ve got Russia. You’ve got wiretapping.”
Spicer interrupted repeatedly. “No, we don’t have that. … You’ve got Russia. If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection. … I appreciate your agenda here.”
When she responded to his goading by shaking her head no, just once, he attacked again: “You’re shaking your head.” And he repeated that several times more, goading her, “(Y)ou’re hell-bent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House stays,” then telling her to “please stop shaking your head again.”
(It may be totally irrelevant to Spicer’s bullying conduct, but it may also be worth noting that the journalist he chose to attack is an African-American woman who works for a news organization that is not one of America’s most famous and powerful ones.)
Trump is known to often monitor Spicer’s briefings from his Oval Office — and reportedly has criticized his press secretary for all things, from wearing an ill-fitting gray suit (he only wears tailored dark ones now) to not being tough enough on some reporters.
The best presidential press secretaries were adept at mastering the art of firmly articulating a president’s positions while also respecting questioning journalists and never starting to debate them. Lyndon Johnson’s George Christian, Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s Marlin Fitzwater, and Bill Clinton’s Mike McCurry were outstanding at that.
If Spicer is to survive in his job, he’d be smart to remember that a press secretary helps his boss the most when he realizes there are just two ways to respond to a hard question from a reporter: 1) josh with the journalist to deflect tension; 2) be earnest. Perhaps Spicer can even get a few pointers from NBC/MSNBC’s newest hire, commentator and former Barack Obama press secretary Josh Earnest.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.