In 2014, an accomplished yet little-known Republican communications specialist shared his 17 rules for life with students at his alma mater, the Portsmouth Abbey, a Roman Catholic boarding and day school on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.
Rule No. 2, according to Sean Spicer: Think before you tweet, post, or upload.
Funny, considering who his boss is now.
The nation would come to know Spicer late this January, in what was an awkward introduction, a widely mocked and memed defense of the size of inauguration crowds, delivered in an ill-fitting suit. That was the new White House press secretary’s first day at the podium?
But with his deployment of what one of his White House colleagues dubbed “alternative facts,” and his irate scolding of the press corps, the chief spokesman for President Trump has exploded to national notice as few press secretaries do, and now enjoys name recognition near that of congressional leaders who have served for decades, according to polling. Actress Melissa McCarthy lampooned Spicer on the most recent “Saturday Night Live,” playing him as a pugnacious purveyor of outrageous tall tales and circular logic.
One could go so far as to argue that Spicer, raised in Barrington, R.I., can claim the celebrated title of “Most Famous Living Rhode Islander at This Particular Moment,” snatching the tiara from perennial contender Meredith Vieira. As Spicer himself might say:
Rule No. 9: Perception is reality.
His career in politics has been a long climb of paying his dues. He was once the unpaid volunteer who assembled the daily press clippings at 5 a.m. for Senator Robert Dole.
He took a job on an obviously doomed campaign in Pennsylvania because he felt his resume needed it, he told Portsmouth students.
Spicer was a spokesman for GOP House members and then served in President George W. Bush’s administration. He became the communications director for the Republican National Committee in 2011, expanding his role to RNC chief strategist in 2015.
He has long been what Washington reporters call a pro — a partisan, of course, who spins to shine his boss’s record, but someone who understands what reporters need. The RNC loaned Spicer to the Trump campaign for the final months of the 2016 election.
Rule 7: Have a plan but be flexible.
One of Spicer’s first bosses, former representative Michael Pappas, a New Jersey Republican, recalls Spicer — back in the late 1990s — as easygoing with a great sense of humor and said he got along well with reporters as Pappas’s spokesman, from about 1997 to 1998.
“He was always very cognizant of the fact that [reporters] were his peers and [both sides] had a role to play,” Pappas said, in a Globe interview, “that they were both responsible for conveying information. He had a great relationship with them. He was always very emphatic with me to say that, ‘Even if you don’t like this reporter,’ or ‘that paper editorially was never supportive of you, it’s very, very important to convey your message.’ ”
Pappas lost reelection in 1998 after famously singing — literally singing — on the House floor about special prosecutor Ken Starr, who investigated Bill Clinton: “Twinkle, twinkle Kenneth Starr, now we see how brave you are . . . ”
Rule 17: Life is short; leave it on the field.
Later, Spicer worked for former representative Mark Foley. Spicer had moved on by the time the Florida Republican resigned in 2006, due to allegations Foley had sent sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to teenage former House pages.
See Rule No. 2, above.
Spicer, 45, who declined to be interviewed for this article, grew up in a leafy neighborhood with big front yards in Barrington, a bedroom town of about 16,000. His father, who died last year, worked in the financial services and boat industries, founding his own yacht brokerage company, according to his death notice, which ran in the Providence Journal.
In his speech at Portsmouth Abbey, Spicer, class of 1989, talked about commuting to school “all the way” from Barrington, about 14 miles, exhibiting a peculiar Rhode Island trait of thinking everything is far. (Another is giving directions by landmarks that aren’t there anymore.)
Spicer started in politics, he has said, as a volunteer for local candidates, including Senator John Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican and a towering presence in state politics for some 35 years, until his death in 1999. Chafee’s former campaign manager, Keith Lang, said contemporaries from the senator’s political machine have told him that they remember Spicer as a gung-ho foot soldier.
Rule No. 3: Showing up is half the battle; showing up early and often is the other half.
After Portsmouth, Spicer went to Connecticut College in New London. A classmate recalled him as smart, outspoken, and engaged in class — a bit abrasive though not in a malicious way. Spicer was on the sailing team and competed at regattas.
In what would be a harbinger of battles to come, Spicer in 1993 got into a mighty row with his college newspaper — after it referred to him in print as “Sean Sphincter.”
Rule No. 16: It’s not what you say but how you say it.
The newspaper insisted it was an innocent spellcheck problem, but Spicer was not amused, according to accounts by the Washington Post and the Daily Mail, a British tabloid.
Spicer back then sounded pretty much like Spicer today:
“Maybe I am not all that familiar with the production of a ‘newspaper,’ but I am really not sure how this can be explained as unintentional,” he wrote at the time,” blasting the paper for “the weekly habit of misspellings, misquotes, and half-truths. . . . Maybe they should start to write and report like professionals.”
Rule 4: Take responsibility when you screw up — you will be rewarded. (Unless you are the newspaper in Sphinctergate. Spicer filed a complaint against the paper with the school, according to the Daily Mail.)
In another chapter of his story, Spicer told Portsmouth students that he was once just a young guy coaching a sailing team at a Connecticut yacht club, with big dreams of getting a political job in Washington.
And wouldn’t you know it, one of his students was the daughter of a “muckety-muck” in D.C., and she arranged for the young Spicer to meet her father. They lunched at a fancy restaurant on K Street, along a block crowded with some of the nation’s most powerful lobbying firms.
“The relationships that you make . . . make a huge difference in your ability to get forward,” Spicer told the students.
Rule 15: It’s true — it is who you know.