Tom DeLay in 2009, in the middle of his indictment on charges of campaign money laundering. Rick Perry in 2016, after his failed presidential bid. Now, Sean Spicer, after his brief and inglorious tenure as the White House press secretary for the Trump administration in 2017.
There’s a long history of figures – pop-cultural and political – using ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” as a vehicle through which to sashay their way to redemption.
“Week 1, you acknowledge that this thing is what you’re known for. You say it, you come clean, and then it’s over. The elephant in the room is gone. Then you can control the narrative,” Deena Katz, co-executive producer of the show, told Slate’s Laura Bennett in 2016.
Does it work?
“The amazing thing is: The transformation is often quite effective,” as The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote in the aftermath of US Olympic swimmer-turned-dancer Ryan Lochte’s own scandal (aka Lochtegate) during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “DeLay became not just ‘the disgraced politician,’ but also ‘the guy who gamely made a fool of himself on national TV.’ The punchline became just a little more human.”
And yet, there’s something far more unnerving about someone such as Spicer potentially securing salvation in a strut on “Dancing With The Stars,” which debuted its 28th season on Monday night. Clad in a fluorescent lime green frilly shirt, he danced a salsa to the Spice Girls along with coach Lindsay Arnold, earning a score of 12 out of 30.
More specifically, unlike with most other past offenders who’ve gone to the altar of “DWTS,” Spicer’s transgressions are potentially beyond game-show atonement.
Recall Spicer’s lies as a taxpayer-funded public servant: that the audience at President Donald Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe” and that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer was only about “adoption and the Magnitsky Act.”
Maybe even worse? He shielded Trump’s debunked claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. He also tried to cover for Trump’s lie that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
Put another way, Spicer’s White House performance included more than just little white lies. What would it say about us, as a society, to forgive someone who for months distorted and deceived from the White House lectern, merely because he’s willing to look silly in front of a live audience?
In some ways, Spicer’s arc from a government official to a “DWTS” contestant isn’t surprising – after all, it’s just the reverse of Trump’s pivot from reality television to the presidency.
Still, Spicer’s trajectory is consistent with Amanda Hess’ investigation into the consequences of “democracy reimagined into celebrity fandom.”
“The point of translating politics into pop culture may be to make it more accessible, but it can also make politics feel oddly remote – as if it is all just a television show to watch, or a fantasy novel to read, or a game to play,” she wrote for The New York Times.
Indeed, while Spicer’s enthusiasm to appear on “DWTS” might be endearing to some, at the end of the day, it’s worth asking: Who’s playing – and who’s getting played?