If you know anything about the spectacle that is politics, you know the job of a White House press secretary isn’t really to answer questions; no, the real job of a press secretary, particularly in briefings taped for the public, is to prop up an administration. A press secretary has to be able to continually sell the presidency to America, reassuring voters they made the right choice and presenting an unassailable image of competence to the press.
Never has this been truer than during the Trump presidency, which, as we’ve discovered, is neither reassuring, nor competent, nor unassailable.
In light of this, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has filled in at White House Press Briefings for Press Secretary Sean Spicer three times now, presents a case study in how press secretaries try to subtly manipulate the public.
Why was Sarah chosen to fill the role of Principal Deputy Press Secretary in the first place? There’s no doubt she has political experience, having worked on various campaigns since 2002. But lots of people in D.C. have experience.
Could it simply be that she’s one of the few left in Trump’s inner circle? Maybe. We’ve heard story after story coming out of the White House about how Trump isolates himself more and more, surrounded only by his most trusted remaining advisors: Gluttony, Envy, Pride, Sloth, Avarice, Lust, and Wrath.
Or maybe it’s that Sarah Huckabee Sanders embodies qualities that conservatives finds safe and comforting, especially in comparison to Spicer, who is nothing if not cranky, abrasive, and a little too East Coast for Middle America.
1. First, and most obviously, there’s her pedigree as a Republican American Princess. “Huckabee” is a recognizable name, even if the only thing most of us recognize her father for is being an idiot. As a politician, minister, Fox News personality, and musician, Arkansas native Huckabee has the kind of folksy-corrupt televangelist-Hee Haw persona that tends to play well to conservative Americans, a persona he cashes in on continually, most recently in a book called God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. (Seriously. I didn’t make that up.)
2. Sarah presents an utterly nonthreatening image. She’s that girl in UGGs, leggings, and The Northface jacket waiting in line at Starbucks while she checks Snapchat — aka the “basic bitch.” There’s nothing particularly memorable about her, and for all I can tell, she’s neither witty nor clever. To put it another way: She’s that college girl who doggedly attends class, does an average amount of work, and occasionally raises her hand to make a completely-predictable comment that someone else has already made — but she didn’t hear it because she was too busy texting under her desk.
Her appearance at the three briefings was carefully styled to telegraph “nonthreatening and trustworthy.” At the first one, she wore a feminine, pink, short-sleeved top (the only spot of color in a room full of greys, blues, and blacks) with a bedazzled Peter Pan collar, her hair parted in the middle. At the second, she wore a cream and navy outfit with a cream cardigan and Barbara Bush pearls, again with the middle part. At the third, she wore what looks like a black dress with a white wrap shrug with big black collar and cuffs, along with the pearls – this time her hairstyle more polished with a slightly off-center part.
It’s as if she’s trying out various identities, all safely feminine, to see which one will stick: little girl, matron, and woman going on a dinner date to a moderately-priced steakhouse with a guy she met on Match.com. Nothing showy, no bold colors, no power suits, no cleavage or short skirts. Wholly nonthreatening and the opposite, for example, of Hillary with her more tailored, jewel-toned, slightly-masculine pantsuits.
3. Sarah’s a mom, and she made sure we all knew it at the 5/10 press briefing. It was a deliberate attempt to get America on her side by invoking the cult of motherhood, and also an attempt to ward off attacks by the press. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that last part because she blatantly announced it. At the 5/10 briefing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvkLKF07-vQ), after telling the press corps it was her daughter Scarlet’s fifth birthday, she noted that her daughter’s “first birthday wish would be that you guys would be incredibly nice.” This, after saying “Does that mean you’re gonna be super nice?” to a journalist after he welcomed her to the podium at her first briefing on 5/5 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glKTertdqXk). Sensing a pattern here? Since when is it the press’s job to be nice or to ask easy questions?
And it worked – for a while. During that second briefing, despite the fact that Trump had just fired Comey under suspicious circumstances and Russian criminals were visiting the White House, the press was far less combative with her than they would have been with Spicer: They didn’t speak over her, didn’t bait her, and didn’t hound her when she ended the briefing. Being new to the job, a young woman, and a loving mother worked wholly to her advantage. That began to change in the 5/11 briefing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ayvicd3gLT0), where the questions became tougher, Sarah seemed more irritated, and her answers became surlier.
4. Then there’s that accent. Everything sounds more benign in an Arkansas accent, doesn’t it? It’s a marked difference from the stiffer cadence and sharper, more nasal sound of the East Coast Trump, Conway, or Spicer accents and the accents of most of those “pushy” Senate Democrats. You could say “We’re fixin’ to round up all them gays and put ‘em in camps” in an Arkansas accent and half of America would be on board. When used for nefarious purposes, the accent works as a kind of Southern Sith Mind Trick: “These aren’t the Russians y’all are lookin’ for.” The Arkansas accent can be charming as hell too. Just ask Monica Lewinsky.
5. Finally, there’s her delivery and diction. Slower and more deliberate than Spicer, more sure of herself, with more careful word choices that have the appearance of seeming casual. Sure, some of it’s straight out of the Sneaky Spice playbook, but if you analyze those three briefings closely, you’ll see that Sarah uses certain words and phrases over and over: “I think we,” “I think I,” “That’s my understanding,” “I think probably,” “Not that I’m aware of,” “Certainly, I think,” and “I would imagine.” Constructions that soften her answers and allow plenty of room for evasion.
And then there’s “frankly.” She uses it twelve times in the 5/10 press briefing alone (sometimes more than once in the same sentence) and repeatedly in the other two briefings as well. On the one hand, “frankly” sounds solid and reassuring, but it’s also a tell: When someone uses it in public statements as compulsively as Sarah does, you know that person is being anything but frank.
Despite all this deception, there’s a small part of me that almost wants Sarah to do well, to show Trump that women can succeed without being blonde bombshells, beauty pageant contestants, or crazy bitches. Except that Trump has threatened to cancel press briefings (perfectly normal, right?), so her moment in the spotlight might be over.
But in the end, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is no different from Conway. They’re like an SAT analogy: Conway is to con as Huckabee is to huckster.
And they’re all going to have to live with the fact that they’re propping up an illegitimate President who is a fraud and a traitor, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already told some big lies for Trump about Comey.
Because someday there’s going to be a basic bitchski standing in line at a Starbuckski’s (with an armed guard stationed outside); wearing nutria fur UGGs and cheap, scratchy wool leggings; ordering expensive rationed tea; reading the only website her phone allows access to, state news on state media; and wondering “Why did they lie to us?”
Well, okay, probably not, but a young Principal Deputy Press Secretary can dream, can’t she?