When it comes to the 2012 election, Donald Trump is so fired.
During NBC's presentation of its fall schedule here on Monday, the real estate mogul and reality TV star announced that he will not make a bid for the White House, bringing an end to what many have regarded as a transparent publicity stunt. For the rest of America, this means two things: "Celebrity Apprentice" will be back next season, and the difference between politics and entertainment has never been so hard to define.
"I've decided that we are going to continue onward with 'Celebrity Apprentice,'" Trump told the crowd gathered at the Hilton Hotel. "…I will not be running for president, as much as I'd like to." The news was greeted with cheers.
Although the overlap of presidential politics with a TV personality might be traced all the way back to 1972, when some urged George McGovern to pick newscaster Walter Cronkite as his running mate (and has a recent iteration in "Sarah Palin's Alaska"), few manipulated it quite like Trump, with his NBC platform, his longtime status as a fixture on TV talk shows and the coverage that cable news gave his unfounded questions about President Obama's place of birth. Trump's flirtation briefly put him atop the polls of prospective GOP candidates and also gave a short-lived bump to his "Celebrity Apprentice" ratings.
But ultimately, his job as reality TV host undercut his gravitas. The point was drilled home by Obama and "Saturday Night Live" writer Seth Meyers at the (nationally televised) White House correspondents dinner in Washington on April 30. Obama's best joke — that Trump's move to "fire" actor Gary Busey from "Celebrity Apprentice" was the type of decision "that would keep me up at night" — felt especially telling the following night, when the world discovered that, even as the president spoke, he already had ordered the attack that killed Osama bin Laden.
Trump's political ambitions withered after the correspondents dinner, as did NBC's patience, according to multiple NBC executives who spoke on condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak on the subject. Just four days before Trump's announcement, Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBC Universal, and Paul Telegdy, NBC's reality chief, told him he had to reveal his intentions during NBC's conference on Monday, the sources said.
But if NBC execs were ready to end Trump's maneuverings, while they endured, NBC programs such as "Today" and the "Nightly News" gave Trump a forum, with anchors asking him for his opinions about China and Iran, while also airing footage from his television show.
"You can hardly blame NBC," says Piers Morgan, the "Celebrity Apprentice" winner who interviewed Trump on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight." "It's a win-win for them."
Larry King, who has interviewed Trump many times, suggested that Trump benefited from the fact that there are a lot of similarities between what makes a good candidate and what makes good television, especially when the Republican party is struggling to find its voice. "Sarah Palin makes no appearances except on Fox, Mitch Daniels appears nondescript, and [Mitt] Romney is a well-known face, but he's not going to say anything that you'll jump at," says King. "Trump is the spice. If that debate were on tonight, you'd be waiting to hear what Trump is going to say. When the governor of Indiana speaks, you might go get a banana."
James Hay, co-author of "Better Living Through Reality TV," notes a more subtle alignment of reality TV with politics as practiced during the administration of President George W. Bush. Bush appeared on "American Idol Gives Back" and First Lady Laura Bush appeared on an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" dedicated to rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
"Those types of reality TV shows emerged by no small coincidence during the Bush years," he says of those two aspirational programs. "The Bush administration was deeply behind smaller government and public-private partnerships, and 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' was about ABC Disney rewarding private citizens for helping others instead of relying on the government to do it." Similarly, Hay suggests "Celebrity Apprentice" promotes private enterprise, entrepreneurialism and other values the Republican Party seeks to identify with.
Ultimately, much of reality television reinforces the notion that people leading ordinary lives have a hidden genius for singing ("American Idol"), dancing ("So You Think You Can Dance") or making money ("The Apprentice"). So why not politics?
"One of the great things about the American political system is that, in theory, you can come from any place and become an elective representative," says Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and current professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "Politics is the ultimate reality television. You run, you submit yourself to all levels of indignity and melodrama, people laugh, some people cry, and then you either win or lose."
Of course, Trump has now presented a third option: You could use your political ambitions to stoke interest — and then back out of the race. "I've certainly seen what it does for his ratings to say 'I may run,'" Morgan says. "I'm thinking of flirting with the presidency myself — and I'm not even American."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Meg James in New York contributed to this report.