During the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made an unexpected appearance. In it, he joked about the easily disproved lies he committed while part of the Trump administration. Following this (admittedly entertaining) appearance; scores of political groups and outspoken individuals decried the act, in one case noting that Spicer had the “aura of a giant festering abscess.”
Onlookers claimed that his appearance normalized some of the more authoritarian practices of the Trump administration and minimized Spicer’s role in these activities. We should note, though, that while Spicer’s appearance at the Emmys should absolutely merit concern and caution, this kind of whitewashing is par for the course for former political actors in unpopular administrations. In fact, former politicians often go to extreme and sometimes bizarre lengths to improve their public image after leaving an administration.
Henry Kissinger, a man who’s been called a war criminal by some, has been separated from those claims with the passage of time. Longstanding divided public opinion and generally sparse public appearances have led most people to ignore or forget whatever atrocities he may have commanded during the Vietnam War. In fact, today most young people will first learn of Kissinger due to parodies of him on popular television shows like Futurama or The Venture Bros.
Former president Jimmy Carter also inspired a massive public opinion shift after he left office. Though his presidency was denoted by perhaps as many failures as successes, Carter today is generally beloved for his humanitarian work. In fact, it could be argued that organizations like Habitat for Humanity would not be as well-known as they are today if Carter had not been so involved in them. This public relations maneuvering has led the man who was once almost universally criticized for refusing to let athletes participate in the Olympics to be depicted as a Christ-like figure on King of the Hill.
Another former political actor in the middle of an attempted PR pivot is former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. While Cameron was simultaneously the man most responsible for Brexit, yet also one of the most opposed to it, he resigned from office under much ridicule and disdain from individuals across the political spectrum. In order to bring himself back into the public’s good graces, Cameron was appointed the president of Alzheimer’s Research UK. This organization seeks to raise awareness of dementia and fund research to limit its effects; it also happens to be the least offensive organization ever.
Lastly, George W Bush, a man whose mere presence or name has the potential to evoke chants of ‘Blood for Oil,’ has pretty much fallen off of everyone’s radar — unless a news station runs a special about how Bush spends his free time painting. Whether intentional or not, public opinion of Bush is far higher now that what it was when he left office. Maybe it was that endearing poncho struggle.
Former political actors have a history of going to extreme measures to improve their image after leaving their positions. While Spicer’s turnaround has been much faster and more bizarre than most, it’s nothing new. But it does remind us that, when it comes to politics, we should keep a close eye on Spicer’s substantive contributions, rather than get caught up in the glitz and the glamour of an elaborate ruse.