Leaders As Media Stars: The New Normal Thanks To Donald Trump

Leaders As Media Stars: The New Normal Thanks To Donald Trump


Leonard Zwelling

John F. Kennedy was the first TV star president. Until the photogenic young leader held those memorable press conferences filled with his singular good humor, no one had ever seen a President of the United States seem like another human being. They had heard one in FDR over the radio, but in 1961, they started to see one.

Then came Barack Obama and the birth of the rock star president. Mick Jagger seemed to have nothing on the young man from Illinois who captivated the Democratic convention in 2004 and returned there to scoop up the nomination from under Hillary Clinton’s nose in 2008 and then go on to eight years in the Oval Office. Like a rock star, Obama was felt to be understood by his audience. He was respected at home and abroad. How else can you explain his winning a Nobel Prize for having gotten elected?

That was then. This is now.

As James Poniewozik clearly elucidates in his cover editorial in the Sunday New York Times Review on September 8, the current President of the United States is not the president at all. He just plays him on television. Mr. Trump is a reality TV star posing as the leader of the free world to the detriment of all of America and most of the rest of the world. As Poniewozik points out Trump is always on camera or on social media. Always. He never sleeps or lets the red light on the camera facing him go out.

What I am wondering is, has this become the new normal for leadership? Must a leader always be the center of attention and do people who personify this narcissism naturally gravitate to leadership roles and does our system encourage and reward this? I think the answer is yes.

As far back as 1985 in Back To The Future, the 1955 Doc Brown seemed unsurprised that Ronald Reagan was president thirty years into the future. “You have to look good on television.” Reagan certainly did that. He also certainly was an actor. But as Poniewozik points out, Reagan and Trump should not be confused with one another.

Reagan was a real movie actor. Reagan told Lou Cannon his biographer that he had to teach himself to “understand the feelings and motivations of others.” Trump, on the other hand, is a reality TV star. He’s playing himself—only bigger. Others are mere props. That’s what reality TV stars do. They take those parts of their personalities they believe to be most appealing and most becoming and blow them up to fill the screen with ego pushing everyone else aside and sucking all of the oxygen out of the room. This was not what JFK, FDR or The Gipper did at all. This is something new.

It is my contention that this is not only the case in politics but in business and academia as well. Look at how many CEOs star in their on TV commercials. Leadership means being the center of attention when it used to mean basking in reflected glory. No one did the latter better than my old boss Irv Krakoff who protected his new hires like me from the political battles he was waging and was the first to congratulate us for our accomplishments in the clinic or lab. He was a perfect boss who never tried to hog the spotlight for himself.

Recent leaders at MD Anderson have been more Trumpian. DePinho was surely all about DePinho and the fact that some of his minions persist in the highest levels of the MD Anderson org chart is a shame. The FORDs (Friends of Ron DePinho) need to be gone from MD Anderson. All of them. They just perpetuate the narcissism and prevent the needed progress to cleanse the institution of the residua of that dark time.

I understand the current president loves Twitter and social media, my idea of two truly bad ideas run amok. Oh, I love email and texting as much as the next guy to communicate with my family and friends, but it is now clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that social media has turned into a 24/7 nuisance with robo calling, spam and viruses galore. Perhaps leaders ought to go back to the old form of communication—talking. And by the way, make it clear what you’re talking about. In what direction are you trying to take that which you lead? Have a real strategy, not just another good line.

No one really knows what Donald Trump is thinking until he opens his mouth and something pops out. That includes Trump himself. Much of what he says was not preceded by any thought on his part and so it is not surprising that he walks it back five minutes later or has others try to explain what he means or needs a Sharpie to prove he was right. He’s a nightmare and he is one because reality TV is a nightmare and he’s is one of its biggest stars—I would say the biggest. He has surpassed the Kardashians in his relevance and lack of substance.

So we now know what the parameters of the next election will be. If Trump is to win he must continue to be the star in the great TV reality drama that is his presidency. If the Dems are to win they must change the subject and bring the debate back to reality not reality TV.

I must say, I cannot predict how this will go. I hate reality TV, but the rest of the country seems to love it.

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