Sean Spicer’s struggle of the tongue
I’m not talking about the White House press secretary’s claim Tuesday that Adolf Hitler didn’t use poison gas, at least not against his “own people,” even if the Nazis did send Jews to “Holocaust centers.” He has apologized profusely for that.
What’s unforgivable is Spicer’s brazen assault on spoken English.
“Tell us who you want to apologize to,” said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Spicer’s father-confessor of choice Tuesday evening.
“I’m not looking to quantify this in any way,” Spicer explained.
“Why bring Hitler into this?”
Spicer repeated: “I’m not going to try to quantify it.”
Spicer was presumably reaching for the word “qualify”; nobody asked him to tally up his Nazi remarks.
Spicer also lamented that his gaffe was “a distraction from the president’s decisive action in Syria and the attempts that he is making to destabilize the region.” Destabilize the Mideast? Mission accomplished.
Spicer went on to condemn the Syrian leader, “Bashad al-Asi — . A — , A — , Bashar al-Assad.”
Blitzer intervened. “I know you’ve mispronounced his name a few times, but it’s Bashar al-Assad,” he coached.
Just the other day Spicer pronounced it “Bissaa al-Ashar,” as transcribed by my colleague Erik Wemple.
Spicer’s struggles of the tongue make me believe his Nazi talk wasn’t a premeditated offense but a lost connection between brain and mouth. If you’re spokesman for the president, that’s not entirely reassuring.
In his brain he may be thinking “concentration camps,” but from his mouth it comes out “Holocaust centers,” as if they were shopping complexes. In his brain he knows Canada’s prime minister is Justin Trudeau and Australia’s is Malcolm Turnbull, but from his mouth comes “Joe Trudeau” and “Prime Minister Trumbull.” His brain knows what time it is when, at his afternoon briefing, he bids the audience good morning or good evening.
Whatever the cause, Spicer’s miscues are an international sensation. In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, inspired by the Turnbull mispronunciation, has a widget to “Spicer-ize” your name. Mine is “Danai Mildred” and Spicer’s is “Searby Spiedler.” GQ put together a video with an A-Z list of all the words Spicer invented on the White House podium. Highlights: Althewise, Drung Prices, Esigdesigejucation, Grobe, Inimpulintation, Kabalkabul-twi, Lasterday, Memererenrderm, Plarm, Transerptation, Wintofrom.
Some might think it unsporting to mock Spicer for his problem, but he did the same when he was with the Republican National Committee and Michelle Obama identified Iowa’s Bruce Braley as “Bruce Bailey.” “First lady botches name of Dem Senate candidate,” he tweeted.
As Spicer might say: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gardener.
His mishaps on the podium are legendary. The inaugural crowd “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Trump’s unfounded claim that millions voted illegally are “based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.” Trump’s equally dubious claim that President Barack Obama had a wiretap on Trump Tower: “The president used the word ‘wiretap’ in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities.”
Thrice in January, Spicer referred to a terrorist attack in “Atlanta,” presumably meaning Orlando, 400-odd miles away. He has been portrayed to such devastating effect by Melissa McCarthy on “Saturday Night Live” — devouring gum, struggling with names and attacking reporters — that even now, when he shows up to briefings in jackets that fit, he sometimes appears to be imitating McCarthy imitating him.
He directed April Ryan of American Urban Radio to “stop shaking your head” when she looked skeptical at a briefing. Given control of the official White House @presssec account, he pocket-tweeted messages such as “Aqenbpuu” and “n9y25ah7.” He showed up at one briefing with his flag lapel pin upside down, prompting jokes that he was sending a distress signal.
Wemple believes Spicer’s collection of “spurts and blurts and polemical dead ends” is evidence that “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Wemple notes his tendency to say “at the end of the day” for just about every purpose. After Politico noted that Spicer uses “phenomenal” to describe everything from the failed health care bill to U.S.-Mexico relations, Stephen Colbert put together a video of Spicer saying “phenomenal” set to the Muppets classic, “Mah Na Mah Na.” I count him retreating to the adjective “robust” in 17 different briefings, once producing this amalgam of Spicerisms: “I think the relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now, and I think there’s an unbelievable and robust dialogue between our two nations.”
Way better than our relationship with Bashad al-Whatshisname.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group