WASHINGTON – When historians write about this bizarre, ugly and dispiriting campaign – and oh, my, will they ever! – the epic dark saga will unfold this way: A man, filled with fear and insecurity, created a hatemongering character and followed it out the window. And a woman, filled with fear and insecurity, hunkered down and repeated bad patterns rather than reimagining herself in an open, bold way.
When Donald Trump moved to Manhattan from Queens, drawn by the skyscrapers and models with sky-high legs, he felt he needed to invent a larger-than-life character for himself.
Author and former ABC correspondent Lynn Sherr remembers that back in 1975, Trump had a starter apartment down the hall from her at 65th and Third, and she saw different women in cocktail dresses leaving almost every morning.
“I think he felt it wasn’t a fancy enough place for them,” Sherr said. “That was the beginning of the gilt and marble.”
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Trump started hanging out at Yankee Stadium with a group of towering characters – George Steinbrenner, Roy Cohn, Rupert Murdoch and Lee Iacocca. Sometimes Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant would stop by. Donald modeled himself on these men, living large and talking big.
From Cohn, he learned about winning, without regard to right and wrong. And from Steinbrenner, he learned about indiscriminately grabbing the limelight. As Trump once said to his Yankee pals, “good publicity, bad publicity, as long as it’s publicity.”
They would sit in Steinbrenner’s suite at a big conference table watching Reggie Jackson slug home runs on TV. They got together all over town, especially at Elaine’s and Le Club, a hub in Midtown for wealthy guys, models and actresses.
“Donald was not a big night life person, except for Le Club,” said one former Steinbrenner staffer. “He was always very likable in those days. He had a big personality, but he was the youngest of the group. He was never arrogant or full of himself. He always was respectful and pleasant to everybody.”
Steinbrenner taught his protégé too well. When Trump asked his pal for the contract to build the new Yankee Stadium, the Boss said no. “If I do that,” he said, “it’s gonna be Trump Stadium, not Yankee Stadium.”
In those days, when Trump showed up at sporting events, he paraded around with beautiful women, but he seemed to be in on the joke.
“You felt he was winking at you, as though he were saying, ‘Hey, kid, what do you think? You could be successful like me,’” said one sports executive who ran into Trump at basketball games.
Before he jumped into the presidential race, Trump was seen as bombastic, vulgar, a bit of a buffoon and a cave man, but there was also, as Tina Brown put it, “a cheeky brio.” He was not regarded as a bigot or demagogue. He was seen as a playboy, not a predator. And when he leveraged up to “The Apprentice,” as his biographer Gwenda Blair notes, “he was set up as the Decider and a very discerning judge of character.”
If he had stuck with his judicious TV boss persona in a race that fused politics, social media and reality TV, who knows what would have happened?
But he created another character for the Republican primaries, playing to the feral instincts of angry voters, encouraging violence at his rallies, hatred toward journalists and disrespect for democracy itself.
“He’s so used to playing a role in different areas of his life,” said Donny Deutsch, the ad man and TV personality who appeared on “The Apprentice” a few times and was once friendly with Trump. “He saw the crowd’s adulation and it drove him. He started to get the biggest cheers for saying the most offensive things.
“He detached himself from himself. I don’t think he believes in the Muslim ban or half the things he’s saying. It was more, ‘If this gets applause, I do it,' in a Pavlovian dog kind of way. He just got into this character. He was so taken with the whiff of his own musk. And the irony of all this is, he didn’t have to. He could have run as an outsider with a populist message without all the evil and mean components.”
Hillary Clinton could also have run without indulging her worst instincts.
People have been telling her since Wellesley that she should be the first woman in the Oval Office. And after Barack Obama usurped her in 2008, she had eight years to figure out how to run and govern without surrendering to traits that have so often proved self-defeating and exhausting.
But the first day of her Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of state is the day she registered her server domain name: clintonemail.com.
It was a reckless and entitled move that drew the FBI into the election and set off a frenzy among House Republicans, who are now threatening years of investigations during a Clinton administration and talking impeachment months before she would even be inaugurated.
Hillary started as a young lawyer on the House Watergate committee, yet she never learned how paranoia can act as an acid on dreams. She couldn’t dismantle her wall of secrecy and defensiveness and level with the public and the press; instead, she built the wall higher and clung to attack dogs like David Brock and Sidney Blumenthal, needing to surround herself with people, no matter how dubious, who would walk the plank for her.
In the hacked emails, the candidate’s advisers Neera Tanden and John Podesta recoil from the Hillary henchmen.
When Brock attacked Bernie Sanders about his health during the primaries, Tanden worried about Hillary’s trust in the “kind of a nut bar” Brock: “Hillary. God. Her instincts are suboptimal.”
About Blumenthal, the Hillary consigliere who helped smear Monica Lewinsky and was part of the ethically blurry Clinton Inc., Podesta said to Tanden: “It always amazes me that people like Sid either completely lack self-awareness or self-respect. Maybe both. Will you promise to shoot me if I ever end up like that?”
And why didn’t Hillary retire the Smithsonian-worthy tin cup? The Clintons have earned $230 million over the last 15 years, and if Hillary becomes the first woman president and Bill becomes the first first lad, they will reap many tens of millions more in book money and speeches afterward. So why buckrake on the eve of her campaign with Goldman Sachs speeches?
On the cusp of becoming Hillary’s campaign manager, Robby Mook called it “troubling” that Goldman Sachs was going to host a Clinton Foundation event.
In the leaked emails, Hillary’s advisers also worried that she has an apology “pathology,” as Tanden put it to Podesta, fretting about Hillary’s inability to offer a sincere apology for putting classified information at risk with rinky-dink servers.
They worry that her battles have made her so guarded that she can’t convey authentic emotions.
“Eventually she will sound like a human,” Tanden said.
Her staff tried to script spontaneity. Tanden suggested having a party where Hillary could “let loose” to music and have a beer and maybe it would go viral.
And even Chelsea was concerned about the foundation ethical morass.
The problem with Donald Trump is: We don’t know which of the characters he has created he would bring to the Oval Office.
The trouble with Hillary Clinton is: We do know. Nobody gets less paranoid in the White House.