WASHINGTON — When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked the press corps Monday to preface their daily briefing questions with a statement of thankfulness, reporters obliged.
Or, should we say, obeyed.
For this, no doubt, Sanders was grateful.
Yet again, she controlled the crowd, though this time by candy-coating her usual condescension with faux fellowship.
I'm thankful I wasn't in the room.
My first impulse when someone asks me to share is to not-share. This isn't because I'm not a sharing person — you can have my cake and eat it, too — but because sharing, like charity, should be voluntary. For a press secretary to require professional journalists to essentially beg for their supper, surrendering their adversarial posture like a dog commanded to Drop The Bone, is an infantilizing tactic. The effect is to neutralize the opposition.
Yes, I said opposition. The press, by definition, is oppositional. As Mr. Dooley, the turn-of-the-century fictional bartender created by columnist Finley Peter Dunne, is often paraphrased: "The newspaper's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
Yet, from the interplay between the media and the Trump administration, one would think reporters were supposed to be taking dictation. Seen and not heard. Sanders, whose persistently arched brows convey an air of constant disapproval, routinely brushes reporters' questions aside. During any given press briefing, one is likely to hear words to these effects:
"I think he addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday," she'll say. Or, "We don't have any announcement on that." Or my personal favorite, which came in response to a query about chief of staff and retired Gen. John Kelly's controversial remarks about Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, "If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that's something highly inappropriate."
One peers into Sanders' fantasy movie, where the reporter, abashed, shrinks into the folds of his trench coat, muttering, "What an impudent, incompetent fool am I!"
If Sanders isn't evading, she's scolding. Like a parent weary of her 3-year-old's constant "why?," her tone and expression telegraph: "Because I say so; case closed."
Sanders' sudden shift from press secretary to minister's daughter a few days before Thanksgiving coincides with her apparent image evolution of being more-carefully coiffed, couture-d and contoured with appropriately professional makeup. One can almost hear the hive of consultants discussing how to imperceptibly adapt this no-frills brainiac to the shallower requirements of a visual medium.
If one were Sanders' employer, meanwhile, one surely would be pleased. She's everything a terrible person — or, say, an unpopular president — could hope for in a public relations artist. She says nothing; gives away nothing; looks fierce and dutifully repeats falsehoods as required. Her resistance to flinching or blinking is state-of-the-art.
Yet, even as Sanders declines to enlighten the press corps, she manages to inspire admiration for her toughness and effectiveness — from a certain perspective. To Donald Trump's base, she's the a la mode on a slice of apple pie, the pompom and confetti at a freedom rally or, perhaps, the elfin princess who can read and direct a person's thoughts by hypnotizing them with her magic pearls. Her daily humiliation of the press, making them seem like churlish children, is a booster shot of "fake news" animus that also inoculates against viral truths.
To the media, she is the wall Trump promised to erect and, increasingly, it seems, we are the swamp he seeks to drain. Out with the media, out with free speech, out with facts! For these purposes, Sanders is perfectly cast. Where there is the prolonged car alarm of "fake news," there is bound to be a fake news officer. Such is not always the case. In fact, the most successful press secretaries were journalists first.
Jay Carney, formerly of Time magazine, comes to mind, as does Tony Snow, previously of Fox News. Both men were well-known, respected and liked by their media peers before crossing over to the Dark Side. They also understood what reporters needed and tried to provide it. When they couldn't, they were at least self-effacing and seemed sincere in regretting limitations imposed by the job. Most important, they fully understood and appreciated the sanctity of the First Amendment, without which all freedoms fail.
To this testament, a note of personal gratitude. Today, not just on our national feast day, I'm thankful for the freedom to speak without (undue) fear of retribution.