…was Bill Murray’s hysterical cry, as he urged his fellow-camper on to a hot-dog-eating contest victory in the madcap 1979 summer-camp movie, Meatballs. The phrase is entirely apropos for what’s been going on lately with the White House publicity staff, too. Within a ten-day period of frenetic activity – calling it “madcap” hardly does it justice – financier Anthony Scaramucci:
- Charged in, amid much applause (mainly his own), to replace White House Communications Director Reince Priebus;
- Vowed to “fire everybody in the place” (possibly including Mr. Trump) unless the leaks to the media stopped;
- Made a complete ass of himself by delivering an obscenity-laced tirade in an unguarded interview with a reporter from The New Yorker;
- Charged out, after new Chief of Staff (and retired Marine 4-star General) John F. Kelly fired him.
Dismissing Scaramucci was practically General Kelly’s first act after he hung up his coat and got coffee. The controversial millionaire – a real-life Scarface Al, without the pin-stripe suit – was a “hot item” (as they say in the news-biz) from Day One. Reporters were probably running a pool on who would be the first to get him to say something stupid that would hurt Mr. Trump. But they hit the Mother Lode when they got him on video, delivering a stream of obscene, out-of-control invective against Reince Priebus that would have made a sailor blush. (Unfortunately, there’s never a sailor around when you need one.) Grown-ups in the White House surely knew this couldn’t continue.
Mr. Trump is obviously drawn to successful men and women who earned their fortunes the hard way, as he did. He prefers some feistiness and outspokenness in his liege-men. But as mom used to say – everything within reasonable bounds. “The Scar” was far outside any reasonable bounds, with no realistic prospect in sight of ever being able to operate inside them.
That being said, however, the diffident style of some of Mr. Trump’s earlier public spokesmen did leave something to be desired for a go-getter like Mr. Trump. A strong president needs a strong spokesman to deliver a strong message on his behalf. One suspects that Mr. Trump knew his team couldn’t play serious hardball in the media’s perverse arena, where they throw the punches, and the pols are supposed to take it like a man. (Is it OK to say that now?)
Like Abraham Lincoln searching for the general he needed, Mr. Trump has been trying to find the tough, no-nonsense leadership team he needs to control his staff, neutralize his enemies, quiet the media, and push key elements of his agenda through before the clock (and voters’ patience) runs out.
A presidency consists of both form and substance, although how many parts of each depends on the man, his mandate, the media, and the times. Favorable media credited FDR with “saving” us from the Great Depression. His policies actually prolonged it, but his Fireside Chats and avuncular manner probably kept us from going commie. WWII salvaged his economy, as we grew into the great arsenal of democracy and then defeated the Axis. The media decorously refrained from filming Mr. Roosevelt being pushed in his wheelchair or taking a few shaky steps on his own. They also ignored his not-so-secret dalliance with Lucy Mercer, and did not publicize the fact that she was with FDR when he suffered his fatal stroke in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.
Dwight Eisenhower – popularly known as Ike – played golf, flashed a big grin and had a folksy style seasoned with occasional incomprehensible Casey Stengel-like utterances. A more adversarial press, like today’s, would have thought Ike wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier. But in ’52 we knew he had knocked over Hitler and his whole sauerkraut army in the recent unpleasantness. As Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, Ike was already an international statesman before he became president. There were rumors that he had a wartime-romance with his fetching British driver, Kay Summersby, but they were never confirmed. The people trusted Ike to handle the growing Soviet threat at a time when fears about nuclear war were running high. He was untouchable.
JFK was, of course, the very model of a modern president. The first president born in the 20th Century, he was rakishly handsome, athletic, smart, suave and humorous. He had a beautiful wife and a photogenic young family. He sailed off Cape Cod and played touch football on the lawn. What a guy!
Judith Campbell Exner
On the other hand, he got us into a deuce of a mess with Cuba that caused the Russkies to park nuclear ICBMs just 90 miles from Florida. Race-riots were erupting in the south. And Brother Bobby, his hard-driving attorney general, was waging a war on the Mafia that some historians believe might have led to JFK’s assassination. Besides that, he was rumored to be carrying on with actress Marilyn Monroe and the smashing brunette, Judith Campbell Exner, who was reputedly crime boss Sam Giancano’s mistress. The media lionized JFK for his decisive handling of the Cuban missile crisis, but after his death it was revealed that withdrawing our missiles from Turkey was the price of getting those ICBMs out of Cuba.
But what was all that next to JFK’s charm and ease with the media? Reporters absolutely loved the guy and covered up his dalliances. He could do no wrong. His shocking death – which no one could deserve – was the worst blow to the country since Lincoln’s death. Ironically, JFK’s most significant achievements were the Civil Rights Act and a major tax-reform bill – both enacted in 1964, after his death. The CRA passed only after Everett Dirksen and Senate Republicans broke southern Democrats’ 57-day filibuster. And JFK’s thoroughly illiberal tax-reform, which lowered the top rate from 95% to 70%, produced the great economic boom of the ‘60s.
Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama had their ups and downs with the media, and their own wins and losses in the policy realm. It’s fair to say that Democrats Clinton and Obama generally got better media-treatment than the Republican Bushes, although Mr. Clinton’s dalliance with another winsome lass couldn’t be covered up. Ronald Reagan was a special case. Despite his conservative policies, reporters loved him because he made great copy. Being an ex-entertainer himself, he was naturally at ease with media-people. He was one of a kind.
Media’s liberal bias has long been known, but it has become more pronounced in the past 25 years. It’s easy to see that media’s posture toward a president – either pro or con – while not decisive to his success or failure, is certainly an important factor. Mr. Trump started out with three strikes against him: (1) he upset the media’s favored candidate; (2) his popular mandate was unimpressive; and (3) liberals hated his policy-objectives. That’s a shaky initial platform for a president to stand on, and Mr. Trump lacks the skill or personal charm – and possibly the inclination – to bring the media over to his side. Instead, he has engaged in a kind of Twitter guerilla-war with the media that has made its denizens more determined than ever to obstruct his governance and (if possible) depose him.
Consequently, Mr. Trump has handed off the task of facing reporters regularly. And therein lies the problem that produced The Scar’s (mercifully) short tenure. (May his tribe not increase.) Mr. Trump needs a tough, serious pro who brings strength, temperance and balance to the important task of media-interface. The Scar talked tough – dirty, actually – but he was intemperate and acted stupidly. Perhaps in the person of General Kelly the right guy has finally shown up. Just looking at him, you get the sense that he has faced down people a lot more dangerous than a few cynical reporters.
The media have been vastly entertained by the “weenie-wars” waged inside Mr. Trump’s administration, but all good things eventually end. Mr. Trump needs a strong team of serious people who can quiet the reportorial blow-dry set and get The People’s business done. The fun is over, and not a moment too soon.
Judith Campbell Exner