In the final pages of Richard Ben Cramer’s seminal book about presidential politics, “What It Takes,” Michael Dukakis looks around in wonderment at the scene outside his Massachusetts home less than 24 hours after his crushing 1988 loss to George H.W. Bush.
“The barricades were gone. And the agents. And the cop cars, the van, the people — that block had been wall-to-wall demonstrations,” Cramer wrote. No TV trucks, photographers, microphones. The only sound: birds.
“Nobody,” Dukakis says with relief to top aide John Sasso. And Sasso smiles and agrees: “Yeah.”
It’s what happens to losing presidential candidates: Mitt Romney, Al Gore, the elder Bush himself in 1992, after his loss to Bill Clinton.
The blazing spotlight moves away. It’s over.
That welcome relief from the madness, though, seems almost an impossibility if Donald Trump loses on Nov. 8. Trump won’t want it to happen, and I’m afraid that media will be equally reluctant to let go.
American news organizations may complain of Trump Fatigue.
But whether or not we’ll admit it, we have a far worse condition: Trump Addiction. Combined with the candidate’s own need for attention, and his skill at keeping all eyes riveted on him, it’s going to be a hard habit to break.
“Trump is catnip, especially to the cable news media. He is not going away,” predicted Jane Hall, a former Fox News contributor and now a communications professor at American University. “I doubt that he is going to let go of the adulation.”
And she said, depending on how his supporters react to a loss, continuing coverage could well be valid.
“Unfortunately, a lot of forces have been unleashed and they are going to deserve coverage,” Hall said.
Dan Roberts, the Washington bureau chief of British news giant the Guardian, sees it differently.
“The coverage of Trump himself will collapse. The minute the campaign is over, the value of that coverage drops,” he said.
Roberts thinks that there may be some residual Trump coverage, which he characterizes as “schadenfreude about the damage to his business” and “some interest in what he’s doing next.”
Essentially though, Donald Trump will be old news, he said, and won’t be worthy of much attention.
“But,” he added, there is a larger subject that does deserve more coverage: “We should continue paying attention to Trumpism,” fueled by the angry and disenfranchised Americans who have put their weight behind the unlikely candidate and his populist message.
Roberts makes the point that news organizations largely missed a huge story months ago when they failed to understand what was driving Trump’s support — millions of people who were “very unhappy with the status quo.”
BuzzFeed’s political editor, Katherine Miller, says that postelection Trump coverage will depend heavily on what he does.
“If he starts a media property, that’s a point of actual news,” she said. If he follows through on his threat to contest the election, that’s a legitimate story, too.
But Miller would draw a line: “Every stray comment he makes is no longer interesting.” And like both Hall and Roberts, she sees a larger story that will deserve continuing attention: “Trump has been divisive, and the divisions aren’t going to go away.” But, she says, “Trump himself doesn’t seem all that interested in leading an ideological movement.”
She notes, though, that Trump has always found a way to stay in the limelight, something he’s been doing for decades in various ways: “He is undeniably a captivating person and now represents the divide in the country.”
In recent weeks, even as Trump’s chances of winning have flagged, news coverage of him seems to have ramped up.
His threats — probably empty ones — of suing the New York Times and the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct are swamping everything else.
Trump coverage continues to overshadow anything involving Hillary Clinton, the woman who is almost certainly about to become president. It seems obsessive, and smacks of codependency.
So here’s a modest proposal. If Trump loses on Nov. 8, let’s avert our addicted gaze. Cold turkey may not be advisable, given legitimate Trump-related news that may demand attention. As Jane Hall puts it, “there are gradations of coverage.”
But the ratings-driven attention to Donald Trump’s every outrageous word and deed should come to a screeching halt.
The ugly truth is that the Trump/media relationship has worked for both, while doing damage to the nation. Adulation for the narcissist. Vast audiences for those who direct the spotlight.
Gladys Knight wasn’t thinking about 2016 politics when she sang, “Neither one of us . . . wants to be the first to say goodbye.” But she might have been.
For the sake of sanity, civility and democracy, somebody needs to show some discipline and break this thing off.
I say we go first.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan