What’s more outrageous?
A cameo TV appearance by Sean Spicer, whose brief career as White House press secretary was dominated by the often ridiculous lies told on behalf of President Trump?
Or the complex history of lies that led to America’s involvement in “The Vietnam War,” as presented in mesmerizing detail in the new Ken Burns documentary?
On Sunday night, episode one of the PBS documentary bumped up against the Emmys. I chose the grim backstory of conflict and death, associated with a succession of American presidents, over sometimes painful award acceptance speeches and brutal jokes aimed at the current occupant of the Oval Office. But it was hard to ignore the party going on over at CBS. When Spicer and his podium rolled onto the Emmy stage, my Twitter feed burst with Melissa McCarthy reaction video and snarky commentary about the risk of normalizing a president’s lying spokesman.
Turning Spicer into Jimmy Fallon — not to mention a Harvard fellow — helps him rebrand, post-Trump. His Emmy appearance also puts a lighthearted spin on mendacity, which continues to emanate from the Trump White House. That makes it easy to indulge in entertainment over self-reflection and boring lessons of history. I’m not anti-humor. With Trump in office, it’s a necessary coping strategy. Where would we be without Alec Baldwin’s Trump?
But let’s not get distracted from the real harm connected to a lying president and the lying and nefarious characters who surround him.
Close to 60,000 members of the US armed forces died or were missing after the years of conflict in Vietnam. The civilian toll in Southeast Asia runs to the millions. But over decades of conflict, the truth about the war was kept hidden from the American public. According to an overview in Vox, the second installment of the Burns documentary presents the findings of a secret government study that concluded the war was probably unwinnable, just as the country was being drawn into more active military involvement. It took 10 years after that for us to exit Vietnam — and it represents just one example of the willingness of the country’s leaders to keep the truth from their fellow citizens during the long years of fighting an unwinnable war.
During his brief White House tenure, Spicer was often compared to Ron Ziegler, the long-serving press secretary to President Richard Nixon. Ziegler lied, but he also practiced the more subtle art of dancing around the truth. While Ziegler famously dismissed Watergate as “a third-rate burglary,” a recent piece in Politico also notes that when Nixon’s press secretary was asked, in 1971, if American and South Vietnamese forces were preparing to invade Laos, he replied, “The president is aware of what is going on in Southeast Asia. That is not to say anything is going on in Southeast Asia.”
If Vietnam adds up to a web of lies hidden from the public, with Trump the lies take place in plain sight. One assessment done last July by The New York Times concluded that the president told lies or falsehoods every day for his first 40 days. Meanwhile, it’s not just lies that come directly from the president; the bluster does, too.
A recent article in Wired, headlined “You can’t just riff about nukes,” compared a threat from US General Curtis LeMay to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” to the “fire and fury” rhetoric Trump directed at Kim Jong Un. In this White House, the generals are more disciplined than the commander in chief, and that’s scary, not funny.
Spicer’s cameo may be an outrage. But an administration that never stops lying is an outrage and a danger. To remember just how dangerous, tune into “The Vietnam War.”Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.