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 were 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…
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