How the media helped create Donald Trump

Sam Smith

I covered my first Washington story 60 years ago. Which is one reason I’ve had a hard time understanding not why there were some who fell for Donald Trump but why there were enough to elect him president.

I was blessed to come of age before the average American was seeing so many advertisements each a day, and was in junior high school when Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, a play whose leading character, Willie Loman, is described in Wikipedia as

The salesman. He is 63 years old and very unstable, insecure, and self-deluded. Willy tends to re-imagine events from the past as if they are real. He vacillates between different perceptions of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support.

Studying Death of a Salesman in high school – with the aid of other books like The Organization Man – helped me learn how to spot a con man and why you didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Despite all that has happened since, I thought it was still true that one of the favored characteristics of a strong and sensible  American was not to be fooled by the Willie Lomans or Donald Trumps of the world. It wasn’t a moral choice that kept someone like me away from them; I just didn’t want to be ripped off.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that television would start to change how  Americans saw things in striking ways that still aren’t given enough credit for their part in the decline of our culture.

For one thing, circus barkers became not a once a year curiosity in your town but part of the nightly visual experience. We called them TV commercials but they had much the same effect. The constant sound of hyperbole and misrepresentation became a common part of our lives. Sure radio had them, but radio being only a sound, stayed somewhat removed from our true being. When a guy is not only yakking, but enhanced by an attractive blonde coming on to you or some other visual distraction, it inevitably becomes more than a sound.

Television would also have a still largely unnoted impact on politics. I got interested in covering politics in part because when I started it was a field filled with far more interesting sorts than say law or education. You didn’t have to like Lyndon Johnson to be fascinated by him. Or the time I walked into Adam Clayton Powell’s office to be greeted by him waving his hands at a long front room bar and saying, “This, Sam, is what comes of serving the lord.” Or the brilliant campaign platform of a southern pol: “Y’all only got three friends in this world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you’ve got Eugene Talmadge. .. And you can only vote for one of them.”

Yes, you knew they were con men, but you also knew something else. For example, no one in American politics got more good legislation passed in less time than Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell, but you wouldn’t want your daughter anywhere near either one of them.

Covering politics taught you that con and competence could either be at odds or work strangely together. It was part of your job as a reporter to figure this out.

Another pre-television takeover factor was that politicians got their reputations from doing real things for real people. It was a sort of feudal system in which you got but you had to return favors to the people.

And, compared to later pols, even the most corrupt often didn’t make that much. There are no lobbying jobs for when they left Congress or foundations for them to suck on for the rest of their lives.

The turning point was the first televised White House Apprentice show, aka the Kennedy-Nixon debate. While Kennedy was infinitely smarter, wiser and more decent than Nixon or Trump, his selection as the Democrat’s presidential candidate had little to do with accomplishment and much with his manner and appearance. He had even gotten into Congress in the first place thanks to his father convincing one of the last of the old style politicians – James Michael Curley – to give up his House seat and run again for Boston mayor.

As for Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower was asked for some of his vice president’s accomplishments and he replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

It was at this moment that American politics changed forever. Reports the History Vault:

While most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon the victor, the senator from Massachusetts won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin.

What accounted for this discrepancy? For one thing, television was a relatively recent addition to America’s living rooms, and politicians were still seeking the right formula for interacting with the public in this new, more intimate way. Kennedy nailed it during the Great Debates, staring directly into the camera as he answered each question. Nixon, on the other hand, looked off to the side to address the various reporters, which came across as shifting his gaze to avoid eye contact with the public–a damaging blunder for a man already known derisively as “Tricky Dick.” The gap in the candidates’ on-air presence was not just a matter of charisma; it was also one of cosmetics. Before the first debate, both men declined the services of CBS’s top makeup artist, who had been summoned from New York for the event. Bronzed and glowing from weeks of open-air campaigning, Kennedy was more than ready for his close-up–though sources later claimed that the naturally telegenic senator still got a touch-up from his team.

… Reacting to the vice president’s on-air appearance, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly said, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Daley, who lived his whole life in his childhood neighborhood, was one of the last of pre-show business pols.

It is true that in JFK’s wake there were a series of traditional politicians in the White House – Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter – but things were moving in a  new direction.

When I had started out in journalism, over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. I learned not to mention my Harvard degree to my colleagues. Further, as I once put it, “the trade stopped being a trade as not only a college degree but a masters in journalism became increasingly desired. Further, journalists – with the help of things like the Washington Post’s new Style section started in 1969 – began joining the power structure by increasingly writing themselves into it.”

The Style section redefined Washington, helping to put social acceptability way ahead of competence or decency. Many reporters, as much as others in the capital, wanted to be part of the new definition and little by little gave up their watchdog roles, becoming instead just another embedded member of the establishment.

Ronald Reagan was clearly a major winner of new show business politics. But as Robert Lekachman put it, “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000.”

And if you think Trump says dumb things, consider a few Reagan quotes:

“A tree’s a tree.  How many more do you need to look at?”

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.”

[Medicaid recipients are] “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts

“Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.”

“We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night.  Well, that was probably true.  They were all on a diet.”

It is worth noting that in the wake of the Reagan fantasy administration, three Democratic candidates for president – each greatly more competent than Reagan or Trump – were dumped from consideration not because of their position or action but because they clumsily handled their style – Muskie for having tears in his eyes during a speech, Dukakis for wearing a helmet on a tank at General Dynamics, and Hoard Dean for an unpleasant scream.  Tears, a helmet  or a shout were now far more important than substance.

Meanwhile, substance faded. Much of the major media covered the disastrous Vietnam war as if its opponents were nuts, the war on drugs was granted sanctity by journalists writing on their third bourbon, and socialism – or even cooperatives – were assigned to the trash can in the name of increasingly monopolistic corporations – even in the news business.

Today there is hardly a full time major media labor reporter in the country but whole networks coveringi the corporate view of things. And when was the last time you saw a peace expert – as opposed to a military or intelligence expert – on the evening news?.

Donald Trump should stop knocking the media. It was, after all, an institution that helped lay  the groundwork for his successful campaign and the still unknown consequences of the same.

All the major media had to do was change from being watchdogs to being lap puppies.

Trump should be grateful.

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