The mounting intensity of Donald Trump’s war on the press confounds news veterans like me who remember Trump’s history as a media whore. During my 20 years as editor-in-chief of Variety, I knew Trump as an avid self-publicist who frantically sought loftier standing on Hollywood’s power pyramid.
But here’s the rub: My perspective on Trump is shaped by my earlier relationship with another icon who also yearned to leverage showbiz fame into political power. Assigned to cover Ronald Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign for The New York Times, I had an inside seat to observe how a vastly different style of showbiz-politician dealt with the media.
On one level the similarities are striking: Both were once Democrats whose ideologies remained ambiguous. Both were drawn to “branding” rather than to conventional business – Trump with clubs and hotels, Reagan as the symbol of General Electric. Both were committed to media manipulation: Trump let Marla Maples know when he was divorcing her by leaking it to the New York Post. Reagan let reporters know loud and clear that his soon-to-be ex-wife, Jane Wyman, was dumping him mainly because he was a liberal and she was staunchly on the right (Reagan formally shed his liberal leanings in 1962).
But here’s where the similarities end: While Trump instinctively responds to attack with narcissistic rage, Reagan normally took refuge in his “good guy” persona. Thus, in his latest tirades, Trump seems to be encouraging his “base” to inflict physical harm on reporters, if given the opening. But the Reagan I covered liked schmoozing with the press and, in his early political days, was not above admitting to total confusion on certain issues. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he was puzzled and appalled by the ubiquity of the blacklist. He knew he had to recite his obligatory “I-hate-all-Communists” lines for the public record and even gave up some names of supposed Communist sympathizers to a Congressional committee, but complained to me, “Do these politicians really expect me to create a little FBI to tell them who’s a Commie and who isn’t?”
I do not intend here to paint over Reagan’s frailties. He once observed, “Politics is like show business in that you need a helluva opening and you can never get away with coasting.” I understood Reagan took a liking to me because I was with the Times and he wanted good press. He had also learned I had voted for Barry Goldwater, as had he, and hence had passed the “trustworthy test” (like Trump, Reagan believed all reporters had to be liberals to get a job). But when I wrote some snarky pieces about his strategic dependence on Stuart Spencer, his political gun for hire, he reacted with a good-natured wince. Spencer formulated his key positions because he understood the political rules and Reagan early on sensed he was tactically clueless. It was Spencer who told him he had to say things like “let’s send the welfare bums back to work,” and Reagan complied. In discussing his shifting ideology, Reagan liked to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, it left me.” In reality, as Reagan’s acting career faded and General Electric put him under contract as its spokesman, Reagan realized that GE’s conservative lexicon could be his meal ticket. The man who had once supported liberal candidates and fought anti-Communist zealots like Richard Nixon was suddenly America’s champion of the free market economy.
Reagan’s record as governor was a mixed bag. He violated right-wing dicta by raising taxes and signing a lenient abortion bill. But he panicked when agitators took over Berkeley, calling out the National Guard and creating a firestorm of controversy.
Reagan was never a great actor, but he projected his smiling “good guy” image with superb consistency. Even when he made the most egregious mistakes, we all had a tendency to forgive him and to assume his good intentions. That’s not the case with Trump. During his fifth season of The Apprentice, Trump acknowledged: “Nobody takes things more personally than me. When somebody says something personal about me I hate them for the rest of my life.”
Under no conditions would Reagan have engaged in the sort of cultural warfare that has consumed Trump America. If he were around today, Reagan would feel that Trump is practicing bad politics. Even worse, it is lousy showbiz.