The beast did not create Donald Trump; Donald Trump kept the beast alive. Without billions in free advertising (i.e. news coverage), Trump would have withered and blown away like other classic also-ran candidates: Ross Perot, Herman Cain and Dr. Ben Carson.
Trump drove numbers. He got clicks. He put couch potatoes on their couches and kept them there.
And when it came to thinking about how much Trump coverage to provide, the media bosses didn’t have to think very hard. If you ran a restaurant and people kept asking for apple pie, you wouldn’t offer rhubarb instead.
In 1998, I was hired by the Chicago Tribune to do think pieces (“thumb-suckers,” as they were called in the business) on the American presidency and the American people. I started in the beginning of January.
On a bitterly cold Saturday, Jan. 17, President Bill Clinton made the one-block trip in the presidential limousine from the White House to the 11th-floor offices of his lawyer, Robert S. Bennett.
The White House was visible from the office windows. Under oath, Clinton denied ever having sex with Monica Lewinsky. After six hours, with a 15-minute break for lunch, he left the offices looking confident and unshaken, which was Clinton’s default mode.
Ceaselessly for the rest of the year, the Lewinsky story drove White House coverage. The story involved vivid descriptions of sexual acts, and back in 1998, the media were not prepared for mainstream coverage of such things.
Feeling that we had gone overboard — my stories were on the front page day after day — my editors would call me from Chicago and tell me to hold back, dial it down and look for other White House stories for a while.
I was delighted. Along with many other White House reporters, I was thoroughly sick of the Lewinsky saga.
But then, the calls began. Readers were upset: “Why are you protecting Clinton?” “Why don’t you tell the whole truth about that guy?” “What are you hiding?” They went on and on and on.
And so, we would return to stories about Monica and Monica and Monica.
Did Trump decide this week that invoking Lewinsky’s name would be a good way of changing the press narrative? Of getting the media to swivel its guns from stories about how he was changing his positions, to a story he believed would embarrass Hillary Clinton?
According to CNN, “Donald Trump said Monday he called Hillary Clinton an ‘enabler’ of her husband’s infidelity as ‘retribution’ for her playing the ‘woman’s card’ against him.”
It is probably true. To examine the mind of Donald Trump is to enter a murky and intricate passage.
To many, Lewinsky is barely a story. It is 18 years old, and many have little or no recollection of it. In one respect, it is like O.J. Simpson’s 1994-95 murder trial: a story that went viral before there was viral technology.
You would think Trump would be delighted with all the (free) media coverage he is getting; but he is not. He is a control freak, and he can’t control the story to the degree that he would like.
And others are in charge of his life, which he considers his private property, public figure or no public figure.
“And these eggheads that you watch on television,” Trump sneered at a rally last week. “I’m much smarter than they are, OK … You know they call them the elite. The elite! I have a nicer apartment than they do. I have a nicer plane than they do. They’re elite?”
If the media created Trump, not everybody got the memo. Editorial pages are not just gloomy over the possibility of a Trump presidency — they are downright apocalyptic.
The New York Times May 3 editorial stated, “The Republican Party’s trek into the darkness took a fateful step in Indiana on Tuesday.”
” ‘I’m watching a 160-year-old political party commit suicide,’ said Henry Olsen, an elections analyst with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. Republicans will all but certainly nominate Mr. Trump, who would be the most volatile and least prepared presidential candidate nominated by a major party in modern times.”
The media helped make Trump, and Trump helped the media pay its bills. But the media also tried to keep Trump in check by correcting the record when he strayed — distressingly often — from the truth.
Trump and the media fed on each other. It was a marriage made in hell.
It was also depressing to see how far a presidential candidate could get by exploiting fear, hatred, racism and bigotry.
We should not be surprised. It had been predicted. All one needs to do is go down to the Jefferson Memorial and see the words carved in the Georgia marble there:
“Indeed, I tremble for my country,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “when I reflect that God is just … ”
Follow Roger Simon on Twitter: Follow @politicoroger