It’s time to be blunt: It’s not just that Sean Spicer made a comment that was outrageously ignorant when he told reporters that Syria’s Bashar Assad was even worse than “someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Even Spicer realized that he had voluntarily stepped into the fecal version of quicksand. As disgusting as his remark was, it’s not the only reason he’s getting such a public flogging. The reason everyone is pounding on Spicer is that he has been a jerk ever since he became press secretary to Donald Trump. His belligerence and his pathetic attempts to stomp on reporters at the behest of his boss, the bully in chief, has meant that no one is willing to cut Spicer any slack whatsoever. One could call him a clown, because time and again he’s hit himself in the face with a pie. Suddenly the humiliated clown has been forced to grovel and try to recover his malicious mojo.
As punishment, the president should have ordered him off Air Force One and specified that on all trips Spicer will have to fly on United Airlines. But all would not be lost; perhaps he could get an upgrade to seats where there’s less danger of being violently removed. Normally on United you have to pay extra for that, but Sean could earn a premium status by offering public-relations advice to United CEO Oscar Munoz, aka “Oscar the Slouch,” aka “Tony Tone Deaf.”
There are few people who could benefit from Spicer’s counsel, but Munoz seems to comprehend so little about corporate image-making that he might pick up a tip or two. This is a man who required several attempts to appropriately react in horror to the video of a passenger being mugged by security people at his airline’s behest. The passenger was dragged down the aisle because he had refused to give up his seat in one of those maddening overbooking scenarios. The passenger ended up in the hospital. Actually, Munoz called it “reaccommodating,” which is the sterile language his industry uses to describe a passenger being coerced to give up the seat he or she had purchased in good faith to go from one place to another.
Munoz was defensive at first, insisting the bloodied passenger had been “disruptive.” I suppose being manhandled by aviation security can make one “disruptive.” Besides, the real unruly ones were the other passengers who shot videos and uploaded them immediately for the world to see. At any rate, Munoz’s initial response caused such an uproar — and more importantly to United, skittish investors dropped the company’s stock like a stone, costing hundreds of millions of dollars — that he made a few more passes at it. The third time, he seemed to get it right:
“Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” Ah yes, there’s nothing like contrition inspired by a financial drubbing and the threat of a huge lawsuit by the passenger.
Actually, Sean Spicer may not be the best one to deliver advice. President Donald Trump, the guy for whom he flacks, doesn’t apologize for anything, except for that time he was caught on tape talking about how he assaults women by grabbing their private parts. Plus, like Trump, United Airlines has had one PR problem after another, to the point that the “Friendly Skies” have become hostile. In fact, the whole industry is widely unpopular because grubby profitmongering has made commercial plane travel pure torture.
Similar to the airlines, Spicer is suffering from a reservoir of bad will. Like Munoz, his performance shows that he’s in way over his head. We’ll just have to see if this is the time that either or both of them are grounded for good.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.