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Sean Spicer’s Kobayshi Maru

By Laurie Kotka

Last week I was discussing the news with my son, sometimes-consumer of political current events. Sean Spicer was at the center of the conversation.

“Imagine working the majority of your life toward something –from college on- every effort aimed at working in Washington D.C. and possibly even the White House. And then imagine your best efforts left you with Donald Trump for a boss.”

I went on to pose this Kobayashi Maru:

Do you:

  1. Continue on in the position, setting values aside, while risking permanently tainting your career?
  2. Decline the opportunity and seek employment elsewhere, living with the reality that returning to the White House following the exit of the Trump administration is unlikely?

In true political fashion, my son chose not to answer and instead told me that empathy for Sean Spicer is misplaced. He indicated that Spicer knew exactly what he was getting into, took the job anyway, and is involved with misleading the American people.

He’s not wrong, but…

Star Trek’s Kobayahi Maru was conceived as a no-win scenario, designed to test Starfleet agents’ reaction to the scenario rather than encourage participants to creatively deduce a way to win. Nonetheless, James T. Kirk, bent on the mission, cheats the system and solves the dilemma posed by the test. While discredited for cheating, he was applauded for the unique way he faced the challenge.

When an officer later challenged Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, claiming that he had never actually faced a no-win scenario… well… this is how that went down:

SAAVIK: Sir, may I ask you a question?
KIRK: What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?
SAAVIK: The Kobayashi Maru, sir.
KIRK: Are you asking me if we are playing out that scenario now?
SAAVIK: On the test, sir, will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know.
McCOY: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
KIRK: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
DAVID: He cheated!
KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. …I don’t like to lose.
SAAVIK: Then you never faced that situation, …faced death.
KIRK: I don’t believe in a no-win scenario. …Kirk to Spock. It’s two hours. Are you about ready?
SPOCK (on intercom): Right on schedule, Admiral. Just give us your coordinates and we’ll beam you aboard.
KIRK: All right. I don’t like to lose.

Only one film later (Star Trek III: The Search For Spock), Kirk destroyed his ship, the Enterprise, to save his crew from the Klingons. Kirk loved the Enterprise. But he did not hesitate to sacrifice the ship for the sake of the larger mission.

Kirk knew how to get things done.


Three things about Captain Kirk:

  1. He didn’t like to lose.
  2. He sacrificed his personal feelings to honor his responsibilities as Starfleet Captain.
  3. He could confound even an android with doublespeak.

Three things about Sean Spicer:

  1. He doesn’t like to lose. Ever.
  2. He will sacrifice his personal convictions to honor his responsibilities as White House press secretary.
  3. He could confuse even an android with doublespeak.

Now, I am not assigning a value judgement to what he is doing. That’s an entirely different commentary. One could certainly make the argument that the end does not justify the means. Similarly, a lie is a lie. It is no less wrong when Spicer does it than when his boss is shouting it from the D.C. rooftops.

Likewise, I am not suggesting exact parallels between Spicer and Kirk – I don’t recall a single episode of Star Trek involving Kirk and a huge glob of chewing gum.


But I am suggesting Spicer has an impossible job. Heck, when I think of what it has to be like for him to go to work, I feel the need to reach for the Maalox. He has a thankless job, sitting squarely between Trump and the press and the public and GOP leadership.

He has been ridiculed by Trump, mocked by Melissa McCarthy, earned the scorn of the public, and the scrutiny of the press.

Where Trump “Counselor” Kellyanne Conway has made a series of missteps from Alternative Facts to the “Bowling Green Massacre” that have rendered both the media and the public dumbfounded, Spicer seems to mostly have it together.

Left to regurgitate the information he is supplied, consistent with the mission that’s been handed to him, Spicer is confronted with another manifestation of his Kobayashi Maru – giving the public the information he has been handed knowing it is wrong or disobeying his boss.

Examining the way Spicer deals with this challenge reveals a little bit about who he is. In going back to the list…

1. Of his focus on winning, Spicer has remarked, “If the charge against me is that I fight to win and I’m intense, then I’m guilty.”

2. Regarding Spicer’s personal convictions and his ability to honor his responsibilities as White House press secretary:

“To be a spokesperson you need to be able to defend the nominee without hesitation. I can assure you that 90 percent of the people who have done this kind of thing for a living would have some hesitation. But I’m glad somebody’s comfortable with it.”

– Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


“There are doctors who help people who have done bad things, there are lawyers who defend bad people. I don’t think it’s unique to my profession.”

– Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary

In fact, prior to his role as White House press secretary, Spicer served as RNC chief strategist and communications director. During that time, Spicer voiced dissenting opinions on immigration, Trump’s offensive references to Mexican immigrants, as well as his comments concerning Senator John McCain.

3. Confusing those trying to follow along? YES. On this point, I will only quote George Orwell who stated, “…propaganda cannot fight against the facts, though it can colour and distort them.”

What’s my point then?

Like it or not, the Trump presidency is for real. One apparent problem spawned by that reality is that our allies are beginning to question what is going on over here. That will not in any scenario mean good things for us. If they question the viability of our government because of our loose-lipped, Commander-in-Tweet, we will begin to lose support of our friends at a time when, by Trump’s own words, we need it the most.

If the objective of Russian interference with U.S. elections was to denigrate our constitutional republic, to what degree is our ever-raging media storm merely feeding that narrative? I am not suggesting that we sweep the truth under the rug. The facts of Trump’s ties to Russia must be examined and dealt with. But is there a better way of going about it?

While we might disagree with the way Sean Spicer does his job, he may be our best shot at salvaging a little dignity. Those ready to criticize should carefully consider if they could do better with the same set of circumstances.

We love to Monday Morning Quarterback. It’s easy to come up with a better way in hindsight.

Every day, Spicer sets aside his personal convictions to do a job I am not sure anyone else besides Sean Hannity could stomach or handle. But he does it as professionally as possible. While Trump’s recklessness scares me, I am somewhat comforted by the fact that Spicer manages to stand up and make things look somewhat palatable for the world that’s out there watching.

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