This was supposed to be the Year of the Woman. Instead, 2016 has shaped up to be the Year of Powerful Men and the Women They Demeaned, Harassed or Worse. The charges against Bill Cosby, the fall of Fox’s Roger Ailes and the rise of President-elect Donald Trump all contributed to that distinction.
It’s no surprise, then, that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s new book, “Settle for More,” gives a behind-the-scenes look at her dealings with two of the most influential men in media and politics — Ailes and Trump.
Kelly’s book, released Tuesday, is meant to be an uplifting memoir about her impressive rise from middle-class Syracuse, N.Y., girl to one of America’s most successful news anchors, yet it’s her painful and disturbing account of what it means to be a high-profile female journalist in the age of Fox News, Twitter and Trump that resonates.
Kelly, 45, writes that she became the target of Trump’s “relentless” personal attacks in 2015 after she reported that his first wife, Ivana, testified in divorce proceedings that he raped her (an accusation later retracted).
She explains that his fury was further stoked during a heated exchange in the August 2015 Republican primary debate in which Kelly, then a moderator, asked Trump about the derogatory way in which he’d referred to women as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.”
Like many before and after her, Kelly became the target of Trump’s now infamous social media assaults. He called her a “bimbo” on Twitter, posted fake photos of her cavorting with Saudi royalty and began referring to her as “crazy Megyn.” Kelly figured it would blow over. It did not.
When Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, retweeted a supporter who wanted to “gut her,” she writes, things turned dangerous.
“Most disturbing were the overwhelming and violent nature of the messages [I] was receiving — and the way Trump’s anger was evidently seen by some as a call to action,” she writes (examples of those tweets are too graphic to be reprinted here).
By the time the mother of three flew to Disney World for vacation, it was with her “family — and our security guard,” she writes. “Yes, we took an armed guard to the Magic Kingdom. More guns, more guards. My year of Trump.”
As a precursor to the four years ahead, “Settle for More” is unsettling. One has to wonder why she didn’t publicly reveal her bizarre ordeal with Trump sooner, given that he was aiming for the White House.
Would it have changed the outcome of the election? Probably not, but timing the book to come out a week after the election feels like somewhat of a cop out.
Still, as Kelly’s personal story, the book is a testament to her resolve, even in the face of Trump calling his good friend Ailes to “rein her in.” To Ailes’ credit, says Kelly, he did no such thing.
Yes, Ailes is the same man Kelly claims sexually harassed her, so his support of her may be confusing to some. Yet Kelly explains what many women already know — turning in a boss, especially one as powerful as Ailes, is career suicide. She complained to a superior, nothing happened, so she learned to navigate the CEO’s unwanted advances.
Of one such incident in 2006, she writes, “I dodged the first two attempts, pushed him away, and immediately went to leave. … As I walked away from him, he followed me and asked me an ominous question: ‘When is your contract up?’ And then, for the third time, he tried to kiss me.” She got out without acquiescing and effectively avoided Ailes until he eventually lost interest.
It wasn’t until former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson filed suit against Ailes that many women, including Kelly, came forward with similar stories. Kelly has caught flak since for taking so long to out Ailes — a decision she still grapples with. But as a newbie with little to no power at the network, the reality was that pushing her case to human resources would have likely resulted in her career being destroyed. Kelly is hardly an anomaly; she’s instead one of few women brave enough to admit her shame for not doing something more, and sooner.
In prose that is simple, clean and straightforward, Kelly comes across in the book as casual and warm one minute, formal and stiff the next. It’s a duality that reflects her on-screen personality
In retelling her story, Kelly also struggles with reconciling her own experiences, negative and positive, with the narratives of right-wing culture that dominate Fox News.
Though she was hurt by Trump and other bullies in her past — competitive women at Fox, Ivy League snobs in her early law career, mean girls in Middle School — Kelly makes it clear that she’s no victim.
Our politically correct culture has created a “cupcake nation” of young people, writes Kelly, who need “safe spaces,” making them unable to deal with adversity like she has.
The only time she comes off as the victim here is when she uses the tired Fox rhetoric of being misunderstood and attacked by the mainstream media. Yet Fox, the top-rated cable news network, is the mainstream media.
And though she’s fought for her rights as a woman and is concerned about preserving her daughter’s self worth when asked by the child what a “bimbo” is, Kelly says she’s not a “feminist” because feminists are “emasculating.”
It’s a conditional self awareness, present when she’s addressing her personal life or the way in which she was underestimated as just another “dumb blond.” But when she writes about her role at Fox, that personal awareness vanishes behind the tired gripes of the right about liberal values that we’ve grown accustomed to over a decade or more of brutally partisan media.
Kelly claims that she was never politically minded, citing old journal entries in which she questioned her party affiliation.
The daughter of an Irish Catholic father and tough but loving Italian American mother (both Democrats), Kelly was a chubby pre-teen with acne who had a hard time making friends. But by the time she’d made it to high school, she’d lost weight and learned how to tough it out, becoming a popular cheerleader.
The early loss of her father from a heart attack also conditioned the teen to fight through personal loss and pain in order to thrive and succeed. She studied law, becoming a litigator in her 20s before pursuing her career an a TV news journalist just over a decade ago.
She joined Fox in 2005 after tiring of her career path as a litigator and quickly impressed her bosses with a hardcore work ethic. Ailes was among them, and he was instrumental in Kelly’s ascent at the network.
In “Settle for More,” Kelly writes candidly about the deception she felt when her colleague, host Bill O’Reilly, interviewed Trump during his attacks on Kelly, yet sidestepped asking the candidate tough questions about his barrage of insults and tweets.
Kelly writes that she was hurt, and even cried, though you would have never known it from the unflappable expression on her face when she returned from a vacation to do her show and later reconciled with Trump in a rather uneventful interview.
Her cool demeanor was described by Bill Ayers, whom Kelly took to task on the run-up to Obama’s 2008 White House bid, as “a Cyborg created in the basement of Fox News. She’s striking, but very metallic, very cold.”
But if you believe her admissions in the book, Kelly is a mix of many emotions, they’re just wrapped in a more well-groomed package than most.
And like many of us, she still has a hard time deciphering Trump’s “erratic” behavior.
In “Settle for More,” she writes with concern about the night before the first Republican primary, when she says Trump made numerous calls to Fox News bosses in an attempt to swap Kelly out as a moderator: “Folks were starting to worry about Trump — his level of agitation did not match the circumstances. Yes, it was his first debate. But this was bizarre behavior, especially for a man who wanted the nuclear codes.”
On Twitter: @LorraineAli