UNIVERSITY – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham and NBC News chairman Andy Lack said Friday that President Donald Trump’s long experience with TV and New York tabloids was used deftly by him to curry favor with voters in “real America” who were not covered closely by the news media.
“He doesn’t hate the media, and he doesn’t hate the news world at all, fake news notwithstanding,” said Lack. “He actually loves it. He can’t get enough of it. He is just a creature of TV.”
Said Meacham: “He knows our (news media) DNA. He knows the press by and large is like second graders at a soccer game … everyone chases the ball and nobody stays in position.”
Their comments came in an engaging hour-long conversation at the University of Mississippi persented by Mississippi Today and sponsored by the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics and the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.
In May of 2016, Meacham and Lack, separately sat down for conversations with Trump in Trump Tower. Their observations of him from those talks permeated the first half hour of the conversation.
“He spent the first half hour talking about another politician and an actor who was replacing him on The Apprentice … Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Lack. “We talked about the possibility that Arnold’s ratings might be worse than his for about 45 minutes.”
The point is, Lack said, Trump “knew every detail there was to know about the ratings.” He used that knowledge and parlayed that with his willingness to engage with the news media, he said.
“We got criticism in the media … You elected Trump because you never stopped covering his rallies. You never stopped putting him on TV,” Lack noted.
He said the reality was the news media didn’t actually do that as much as many thought.
“The point was he was so accessible and he wanted to tell his story,” Lack said. Hillary did not. … It was very difficult, very challenging to get her to do anything.”
“He is a cable news addict, literally,” noted Meacham.
Lack noted a comment by Meacham this week in which he said Trump “is not about the art of the deal, he is about the art of the headline.”
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Lack did some self-reflection on the role of the media.
“I think the biggest story that we missed, certainly NBC, we underestimated the dislike of Hillary in the country,” said Lack. “The skepticism was so deep, and I think particularly if you were in the bubble in New York or Hollywood, you just had no idea, and we didn’t cover that well.”
If the press failed to convey Trump’s real chances of winning the presidency, it was due to lack of coverage of his voters, said Lack.
Meacham disagreed to a point. He noted that over the past 50 years the American public’s confidence in Washington has declined from 77 percent to 17 percent today, or from three out of four having confidence that the political and governmental institutions in Washington will do the right thing to less than one and five having that confidence today.
“There’s nobody in America at least who’s remotely swayable who didn’t know what we were getting with the 45th President,” said Meacham. “To some extent the country looked at Washington and said if you’re going to act like a reality TV show, we’re going to send you a reality TV show.”
When visiting Trump Tower last May, Meacham said he noticed a family of three —mother, father, and son — walk through the revolving doors. He said the son asked his father,”Do you think he (Trump) goes through the door we just came in?”
The father replied,”Oh no, I bet he has a secret entrance.” Meacham said, which left the boy in total awe, as if Trump was a heroic figure like Batman, coming to save the day.
“It was a small moment; it should’ve triggered something more profound in me,” said Meacham.
Lack is the founder of Mississippi Today and is on the company’s Board of Directors. Meacham is on Mississippi Today’s Advisory Board and was the commencement speaker at the University of Mississippi on Saturday.
Meacham and Lack both talked about the importance of a president’s characteristics and how it factors into the presidency.
During that sit down, Meacham said he admired Trump for his honesty.
“I walk in the room and he says, ‘It’s an honor to be interviewed by you. I’ve never read any of your books, but you’re great on TV,’ ” said Meacham. “And I appreciated the candor.”
“What Secretary Clinton would have said is ‘Oh I read your book on ‘x’ and it changed my view on ‘y’ and she would have been lying and I would have known she was lying.”
Meacham noted that in the White House, all presidents are surrounded by portraits of former presidents and in the workspaces are pictures of themselves.
“The president’s see as they wish to be seen and they live in a house of history,” said Meacham. “They live in a reinforcing sophistic atmosphere, so we wonder why they’re all crazy.”
Noting Trump’s recent comments that President Andrew Jackson had he lived long enough could have prevented the Civil War, Lack sought a response from Meacham, whose biography of Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House) erarned Meacham the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
As Meacham noted that Trump told him in their conversation that he had cancelled a golf match to binge watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War on Netflix “which is so improbable and think it is probably true, said Meacham.
“He said to me in that interview last year that he felt the civil war could’ve been over with,” said Meacham. “There was a deal to have been struck.”
So Meacham said he thinks Trump’s love of the mythology of Andrew Jackson collided with his own confidence of himself as a deal maker that he blurted out the comment that Jackson “could have stopped the Civil War.”
Contributing: Fred Anklam Jr.