When Stephen Colbert introduced a surprise guest at the end of his Emmys opening monologue on Sunday night, the audience didn’t seem to expect to see former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer. The Late Night host shocked most of the crowd—Veep actress Anna Chlumsky was particularly amazed—with the selection of one of comedy’s favorite targets of the last year.
Colbert brought on Spicer, complete with the rolling press office podium that Melissa McCarthy made famous in her Saturday Night Live impression, to mock President Donald Trump. From the New York Times transcript:
SPICER: This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.
COLBERT: Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego. I can understand why you would want one of these guys around.
As the night went on, pictures emerged on social media of Spicer enjoying himself backstage and at parties. Spicer was photographed schmoozing with late night hosts Seth Meyers and James Corden (the latter was caught giving Spicer a kiss on the cheek), actor Alec Baldwin (who won an Emmy for his performance on Saturday Night Live mocking Spicer’s former boss) and other entertainment industry figures. By Monday night, Late Night With Stephen Colbert was using the gag in sponsored posts on Facebook. It was quite the turnaround for Spicer, whose reputation for lying in service of the president included downplaying the Holocaust and defending the administration’s Muslim ban.
Given Spicer’s recent history representing Trump, reaction to the joke decidedly mixed. On Monday morning, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (9/18/17) frowned on the whole affair, writing that “Colbert abetted Spicer’s image overhaul and probably upped Spicer’s speaking fees by letting him demonstrate what a self-effacing sport he could be.”
An unnamed source close to the decision to include Spicer told entertainment outlet Vulture (9/18/17) that it was only a joke, though one not intended for everyone: “There was no expectation everyone would love this,” the source said.
Yet for all the outrage over the appearance, and for all the distaste over Spicer’s relatively quick public rehabilitation (Spicer left the White House less than three weeks ago, on August 31), the fact is that it’s par for the course in how the corporate media—both in news and entertainment—treat those in power when they leave Washington.
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Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie pointed out as much on Twitter on Monday. “The expectation this time will be different is wrong,” Bouie said, debunking the idea that that Trump was too toxic to preclude his acolytes from being offered redemption. And MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes tweeted on Sunday night shortly after Spicer’s appearance that “power is all about who gets forgiven. Who gets fresh starts.”
Hayes should know. The network he works for has repeatedly given airtime to George W. Bush administration speechwriter and Iraq War booster David Frum, whose image has undergone its own rehabilitation since the advent of the Obama administration. And it’s not only Frum who’s benefited from MSNBC‘s selective memory of the early 2000s. Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace hosts a show, Deadline: White House, on the network every weekday; officials like Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card and election strategist Steve Schmidt frequently appear on any one of the shows that fill out the week’s lineup.
Of course, MSNBC isn’t alone in scrubbing clean the images of those whose political careers have resulted in war, austerity and mass surveillance. In March, FAIR (3/7/17) reported on how George W. Bush was being feted by newspapers and morning television— and how the nostalgia around Bush’s time in office was part of a longstanding media tradition of normalization for political figures.
During Bush’s book tour, he was welcomed with delight by Ellen Degeneres, a woman whose marriage would have been impossible under Bush’s administration. As the host of the satirical Colbert Report, Colbert in 2013 included war criminal Henry Kissinger—conservatively estimated to be responsible for at least 3 million deaths—in a quirky dance video. Kissinger appeared on the Report for a softball interview the following year. Trump himself appeared on SNL in late 2015, well after his racist and misogynistic comments had become part and parcel of his campaign.
But even though this practice is a time-honored tradition, the 17 days between Spicer leaving the White House and his arrival onstage at one of Hollywood’s biggest events is notable for how swiftly the worm has turned for the former press secretary. If this is what Spicer’s post–White House career looks like, expect Trump to be back on the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon less than 48 hours after he resigns from office.
“It’s a big club,” the late comedian George Carlin once said of the elite in America, “and you ain’t in it!” It’s hard to imagine looking at Spicer’s appearance at the Emmys, and the intersection between the entertainment industry and the politicians they claim to #resist, and not understand that the world the corporate media inhabit is a world where the regular social and moral rules don’t apply. Once you’re in, you’re in.