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Television

Will Donald Trump repeat the TV mistakes of past candidates in his Megyn Kelly interview?

Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly
Donald Trump, left, will sit down with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, right, for an interview Tuesday.
(Associated Press)

Ted Kennedy was sailing in the polls in 1979 as a challenger to fellow Democrat President Jimmy Carter when he sat down for a nationally televised interview with CBS correspondent Roger Mudd. Prim and coiffed, the senator tilted his head and looked very much the scion of a dynasty. Mudd took a seat and asked a simple question: “Why do you want to be president?”

What followed was excruciating. Kennedy rambled and stammered; he was drained of eloquence. He droned on, and the more he spoke, the more incoherent his answer became.  He never recovered. The exchange marked the turning point when a prospective candidate began his slide into a cautionary tale that allowed Carter to push ahead and win the nomination. 

Such interviews can be snapshots of a nation’s psyche, a time when clarity is distilled from clamor. They make for compelling television, turning unexpected moments into mythology while illuminating strengths, weaknesses and sometimes painful falls from grace, such as Richard Nixon’s apology years after the Watergate scandal with David Frost and Sarah Palin’s vacuous comments on foreign policy and her newspaper reading during the 2008 campaign with Katie Couric.    

Donald Trump’s one-on-one interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly scheduled for Tuesday is also likely to make for intriguing political drama. It comes as Trump faces increasing scrutiny after his defeat of Republican rivals to emerge as the party’s presumptive nominee.  Despite his divisive stands and eviscerating asides, Trump, who has targeted everyone from Republican power brokers to the pope, has been immune from self-destruction.

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In facing Kelly, who over the last year has doggedly questioned him, the candidate’s campaign is entering a high-stakes cultural and political crossroads as Trump seeks to reach beyond his core constituency of predominantly white, male voters. Many will be watching to see if he can holster his rhetoric — he has been somewhat less raucous of late —  to burnish his image among minorities, women, world leaders, social conservatives and others who are wary of him.

Trump is brilliant at surprising you. When you think he’s going to be combative he isn’t and when you think he’s not going to be combative he is.
TV news producer Steve Friedman

Trump and Kelly have a fraught relationship ideally suited for the incendiary populism and outsized personality that have shaken the Republican campaign and highlighted Fox News’ relentless determination to shape national politics. Their first matchup during a debate last August set a contentious tone as she attacked his derisive comments about women and he later suggested that she was angry and having her period. The encounter, which highlighted her steely cool and his pugnaciousness, crystallized the passions of their followers. 

They now face risks to their calibrated television personas and one has to wonder, given the insatiable cravings for polls and ratings, what will unfold when the hair — his ginger whorl and her meticulous comb-back — is tweaked and the microphones click on. This is the age when an errant tweet, a Facebook tempest or a damning sound bite could alter the trajectory of a campaign, even for a candidate who starred in his own reality-TV game show, “The Apprentice.”

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“I think it’s a big deal for both of them. It’s an opportunity for Megyn Kelly to continue on being seen as tough on Donald and an opportunity for him to use the media for his benefit,” said Steve Friedman, a veteran TV news producer. “Trump is brilliant at surprising you. When you think he’s going to be combative he isn’t and when you think he’s not going to be combative he is. She’ll be good. She’s always good. But the question is how he reacts.”

In his presidential bid, Trump has recast campaign coverage. His showmanship and masterful use of television have captivated the country and perplexed a news media that went easy on him in the early days as they were drawn toward the force of spectacle. He was a novelty who became a contender who morphed into a meteor. He crashed American politics as an outsider, but he was the consummate entertainer, an abrasive impresario in the age of ravenous news cycles and social media.

You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.... Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?
Megyn Kelly

The Kelly-Trump show echoes like a family squabble inside the larger campaign. Nearly 24 million viewers watched the August debate when Kelly told him, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.... Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”

He fumed and said afterward that she was mad at him and that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Many believed the line was a reference to menstruating.

Trump refused to attend a January debate Kelly moderated, saying, “Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me.” He attacked Kelly’s professionalism, but in March he showed up for a third debate in which they played nice before Kelly bore into his stand on immigration. The billionaire candidate, at the urging of Fox News chairman and Chief Executive Roger Ailes, has since agreed to sit with Kelly for the interview Tuesday.

Trump’s reactions to Kelly marked a feud with Fox News, which the real estate tycoon, who has his own brand of steaks, relished with characteristic aplomb. Although more boisterous than most politicians and at times less in command of facts, Trump is not alone in testy and often revelatory exchanges with journalists. Such moments have made for gripping television over the years.

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In 2008, CBS correspondent Katie Couric’s interviews with then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was running as John McCain’s vice presidential nominee, became an  embarrassment for the campaign. When asked what foreign-policy credentials she possessed, Palin responded that Russia and Canada were close to Alaska. When asked what newspapers she read, she could not name one and said that she read “all of ’em, any of ’em that, um, have been in front of me over all these years.”

Palin’s performance damaged the Republican campaign and led to skewering on late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live,” where Tina Fey satirized her with a scalpel’s precision.

When his presidential bid was in jeopardy in 1992 over allegations of infidelity, Bill Clinton, with Hillary at his side, appeared on “60 Minutes” with Steve Kroft. Clinton denied a long-time affair with Gennifer Flowers and blamed the media for turning the campaign “into a game of gotcha.” Hillary defended her husband in remarks opponents criticized as political duplicity and supporters praised as heartfelt and loyal.

“I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said. “I’m sitting here because I love him and I respect him and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people then heck, don’t vote for him.”

The performance by the Clintons helped quell questions about his character — at least until Monica Lewinsky made headlines.

Other showdowns between reporter and politician revealed as much about the journalist as the candidate or president. In a 1974 news conference during the Watergate scandal, Dan Rather, a CBS White House correspondent criticized by conservatives for his coverage of the embattled leader, stood to ask a question to both applause and taunts.

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“Are you running for something?” Nixon joked.

“No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” Rather responded.

Nixon’s smile wavered.  

Few television sit-downs were more riveting and revealing than a series of 1977 interviews British broadcaster David Frost did with Nixon three years after the president resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment. Unless you apologize to the American people, Frost told Nixon at one point, “you are going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”

An uncharacteristically vulnerable Nixon responded: “I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government. [The] dreams of all those young people.... Most of all, I let down an opportunity that I would have had for 2½ more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace.”

Former President Richard Nixon, right, with broadcaster David Frost in California in 1977.
Former President Richard Nixon, right, with broadcaster David Frost in California in 1977.

Such is the history of the unanticipated reactions that become the grist of career triumphs and political epitaphs. Kelly and Trump each face risks as they enter the prime-time interview to be aired on the Fox broadcasting network, a wider platform than Fox News. A former Fox TV executive said if the ratings are high it will help Ailes keep Kelly in the fold when her contract comes up next year.

The consensus among TV news executives, some of who would like to have Kelly on their networks, believe she will be firm with the candidate. She’ll be expected to further her reputation as an independent and rigorous interviewer in order to broaden her audience outside of the conservatives who turn to Fox News as a counterbalance to what they perceive as the liberal media.

“I don’t think there is any chance she’ll have an interview with him that will be softball questions,” said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “No. 1, that’s not who she is, and No. 2, she’s not about to give in to him. I think she’ll be tough.”

Sabato believes Trump, whose grimaces and snickers send Twitter into fits of glee and rage, will behave when he appears with Kelly. But that demeanor is not likely to last.

“The problem is it doesn’t make any difference what he does on her show. It won’t take 24 hours for him to start tweeting that she was so mean or unfair for bringing something up. It’s all so predictable. There is no way there will be a permanent kind of détente. He doesn’t know what that means.“

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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