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Keeping Score: Spicing things up at UMass


Friday, November 30, 2018

Good morning!

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer spoke at the UMass Fine Arts Center in Amherst this week. The event was sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group based in Reston, Va., that lists an array of like-minded speakers on its website including Karl Rove, Oliver North and Newt Gingrich.

According to The College Fix, eleven speakers were shouted down on campuses in the 2017-18 school year, including education secretary Betsy DeVoss at Bethune-Cookman in Florida. Two years ago at UMass, conservative writer Milo Yiannopolous, dubbed a “flame-throwing provacateur” by the Washington Post, was verbally roughed up by Five-College students.

I drove down to watch Spicer’s talk and wondered if it would trigger the same sort of vitriol. The UMass police had similar concerns and posted officers inside and outside the building and had a paddy wagon — now called incident command trucks — on the premises to haul off any would-be lawbreakers.

Inside the lobby, the school’s Young Republicans Club offered political literature and buttons to any takers. I randomly plucked two off the table and shoved them into my coat pocket. One said, I Support Free Speech, Not Political Correctness, and the other said, America: Exceptional Since 1776.

YRC member Jon Basile was behind the foldout table when a young woman wearing a wool cap and nose ring pulled a smartphone from her pocket, clicked a photo of him and silently walked away.

“Do you feel outnumbered?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Basile, a freshman from Haverhill, “but sometimes it’s okay to feel out-numbered. You’ve just got to stand up for what you believe in.”

The talk was free and open to the public, and a fair amount of middle-aged adults had come to watch. I’d arrived early and had chosen a spot midway up but was soon surrounded by students plopping their knapsacks under their seats.

Spicer strode onto the stage in a dark blue suit with a red handkerchief tucked a half-inch out of the breast pocket and wore a white shirt that was open at the collar. He looked physically sturdier than on television, about 5-foot-10 with a stocky frame and the trademark sandy brown hair combed to the side.

The emcee had tried to buffer any negative reaction by saying Spicer is a Red Sox fan, but the surprisingly partisan crowd applauded and settled back to listen. “I want to talk about where I came from, and where I wound up,” he said.

Where he wound up was the White House. The 47-year-old Spicer was hired by president-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2016, and became the 28th White House Press Secretary the day of the inauguration. 

Almost immediately, he drew the ire of a White House press corps that was more than willing to shoot the messenger.  During his six months on the job, he was ridiculed for accidentally wearing his U.S. flag pin upside down, was viciously impersonated and satirized by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live, and was live fact-checKed on air by CNN.

The enmity persists on Google: “Spicer accused of racial slur. .. Spicer admits working for Trump was exhausting and lonely. … Spicer likens Trump to wondrous mystical creature…”

Spicer said the dislike was prompted in part by his equanimity during press briefings. “There are 49 seats in the White House briefing room. Tradition is AP gets the first question… for too long the front row has dominated — NBC, CNN, CBS… but I called on everyone.

“I grew up in Rhode Island. My father sold boats and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.”

He attended Portsmouth Abbey School, an exclusive Catholic boys school on the R.I. coastline where the yearly boarding tuition is $60,500. He capitalized on being a day student, by obtaining his schoolmates’ birthdays and home addresses. “Then I wrote to their parents and told them that for $50 pop, I would hand deliver their son a birthday cake. I’d worked out a deal to buy them from the local bakery for $12.”

He attended Connecticut College in New London, “a left-leaning liberal arts school” and said his favorite course was government. “There was this awakening in me. I started to realize I was a conservative Republican and I wanted to go to Washington.”

In 1994, he made $1,000 a month working for Republican Edward Munster who was trying to unseat longtime incumbent Sam Gejdenson of the Connecticut 2nd District. “Fifty-two towns east of the river and we lost by two votes. It was one of my biggest lessons.” (After a week-long recount, Gejdenson was declared the winner by four votes.) 

Six years later, he helped Congressman Clay Shaw get re-elected in Florida’s heavily Democratic 22nd District. “Nobody gave us a chance. He’d been in office since 1981, but he had a kind of political atrophy. On election day, he wanted to go car-shopping with his wife. I got a list of every diner in the district. We hit ‘em all and won by 385 votes.”

The first heckler sounded off when Spicer said he began to develop a style. “I was drawn to working in the press — changing the narrative.”

“Lie?” she squawked.

A few minutes later he referenced “downshifters” who voted Republican no matter what.

“White nationalists?” she asked.

The audience chuckled, but Spicer had the power of the microphone. He predicted that “30 to 35” Democrats would file papers to run against Trump in 2020, and spoke of how he teamed up with Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee to provide Trump’s campaign with resources. “He wasn’t a politician. He had no fundraising, no research team, no communications team…”   

On election night in New York City, “I was on the fifth floor of Trump Tower … It was empty, nothing there. It had been a prop room for ‘The Apprentice.’ Pence was there, Christy, Ivanka. The phone rings. Ivanka answers. It’s Trump. Where are you? Fifth floor, we tell him. I’m on 12th, c’mon up. There was no security. No barricades. In 24 hours the world was transformed.”

At the conclusion of his 45-minute talk, the emcee said Spicer would answer “pre-selected questions.”

During the ensuing uproar from the first few rows, a thirty-something protester wearing a brown leather jacket and with a mop of dark hair stood and yelled, “Your whole career is a fake!”

Spicer took it in stride. “If you guys are looking for jobs as White House correspondents, you’re well on your way,” he said.

Others next to him started singing. “Sol-lidarity for-ever, Sol-lidarity for-ever…”

Someone yelled, “Your song sucks!” which prompted Spicer to smile and say, “When I’m on a college campus and you’re getting booed, that tells you something.”

During the brief Q&A, Spicer acknowledged that overestimating the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration “wasn’t my finest day” and said his biggest obstacle being White House press secretary was “The newness of Trump as a disrupter, someone who doesn’t care about tradition and protocol.”

As the crowd got up to leave, freshman Bryan Eastwood said, “It was more interesting than I thought, but honestly I just came to see that little bit at the end.”

Outside the building, political science major Timothy Puglisi of Boxford said the protests were predictable. “Based on the Milo event, I wasn’t surprised. This is the only college he’s been to and the way he handled it was appropriate, but I wish it hadn’t happened.”

“It was interesting,” Puglisi added, “to listen to a guy who’s been on the battlefield.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.