The world is about to hear a whole lot more about Sean Spicer. Period.
As the public face of the Donald Trump administration, Spicer will be giving reporters daily briefings from the podium in the West Wing of the White House.
In fiction, the role of press secretary was played with aplomb by CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), sashaying from President Jed Bartlett’s office to the briefing room in the TV drama The West Wing. In real life, Barack Obama’s most recent mouthpiece was the urbane Josh Earnest, who had a penchant for jokey sports metaphors.
Spicer, to put it mildly, has a different approach.
He kept reporters waiting for an hour on Saturday afternoon before barnstorming into his press room debut. Burly, cropped-haired and wearing a grey pinstripe suit that was a tad too large around the collar, the 45-year-old gripped each side of the lectern and launched a blistering tirade against the media over what he called “deliberately false reporting”.
One example, he argued, was to do with the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said angrily. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
It was not the first time Spicer has used the word “period” for emphasis and it will probably not be the last. He also warned, “we’re going to hold the press accountable”, a phrase that would be chilling in many regimes around the world.
Where Earnest was usually measured, Spicer was brash, loud and combative, entirely in sync with his boss. He wrapped up after five minutes and marched off, ignoring a cacophony of shouted questions. The dissatisfaction on faces of reporters on the front row spoke volumes.
“I feel like I’m back at school, being given a ticking off by the head teacher,” sighed one. Another filed a TV report that said Spicer “tore a strip off the media as wide as an Iowa farm”.
Spicer, who is also a lieutenant in the naval reserve, grew up in Rhode Island. His father is an insurance agent and his mother an academic manager at a university. At Connecticut College, according to a Washington Post interview last year, he “caught the student government bug after the sailing team could no longer satisfy his competitive urges”.
“Surrounded by liberal classmates, he began to think of himself as Republican. His agenda wasn’t particularly partisan – working to ban smoking in a dining hall, fighting for cable TV in the dorms. But the seeds of his contentious relationship with the press had already been sown.
“‘I am writing in response to the article in the 26 April edition of the Voice in which my name was misspelled,’” he wrote to his school paper in 1993. While the paper had told him it had been unintentional, he believed ‘that it was a malicious and intentional attack’.”
The paper had called him ‘Sean Sphincter’.
“‘The first amendment does uphold the right to free speech,’ he said. ‘However, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.’”
Spicer studied politics at the American University in Washington, became communications director for the Republican Conference in the House, then joined George W Bush’s administration as spokesman for the US trade representative. He played the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter egg roll.
Spicer is the Republican National Committee’s longest-serving communications director, having started in 2011, later adding the job title “chief strategist”. He is credited with boosting its social media operations, building an in-house TV production team and creating a rapid response effort to reply to attacks.
His Twitter reponses to news stories include: “Another example of false, reprehensible, pathetic, tabloid faux journalism.”
The Washington Post interview said: “One editor of a DC-based publication said she’s been on the receiving end of so many Spicer tirades that when he calls her at home, her young child will recognize his voice and burst into tears. ‘Sean Spicer,’ she says, ‘is a curse word in our house’.”
Like many Republicans, Spicer was critical of Trump before going to work for him. When the billionaire businessman criticised John McCain, senator and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, Spicer issued a statement: “Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period.”
By last summer he was having to clear up the mess of Melania Trump’s Republican convention speech having been partly plagiarised from an address by Michelle Obama. He memorably claimed on CNN that the phrases were widely used, including in a children’s cartoon: “Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony said, ‘This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now.’”
Now he is in the harshest of spotlights. The job of press secretary has drawn its share of characters. Michael McCurry, representing Bill Clinton, once began a briefing as an “anonymous official” with a paper bag over his head.
It also draws fire. At a parting breakfast with journalists this week, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Earnest said: “The stakes are just higher and every sentence and in some cases every word that you choose to utter is being closely watched around the world and has global consequences.”
He noted the example of former press secretary Robert Gibbs who, discussing US-UK relations, inadvertently neglected to use the timeworn phrase “special relationship”, triggering a “not insignificant kerfuffle on both sides of the Atlantic ocean”.
Spicer has an added problem never faced by a press secretary before. Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip tweets may take him by surprise as much as anyone.
Earnest said: “One of the things that will be challenging is it’s apparent that the president-elect often sends tweets without consulting him and that has the potential to put Mr Spicer in a difficult situation if the tweets of the president-elect are not effectively coordinated with the public comments of the spokesperson.
“That kind of dissonance, if you will, is something that can be overcome in the context of a political campaign but the consequences are much higher when you’re talking about a range of sensitive policy issues, including some policies that have a direct bearing on our national security and our relationship with countries around the world.”
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