UNBELIEVABLE: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
By Katy Tur. Dey St. 304 pp. $26.99
When NBC News correspondent Katy Tur spent more than 500 days covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, she did so, Tur asserts in her new book, “with one audience in mind: the American voter.”
Tur’s chronicle of that experience appears to favor a different audience. It reads like it was written for her colleagues on the trail, full of insidery reminiscences, professional self-doubt, last-second flights, lousy hotels and gossip about which NBC News embed was making out in a garage with which CNN staffer. (“They denied it. We didn’t believe them.”) Yet what elevates “Unbelievable” beyond one more pedestrian campaign memoir is Tur’s skill at capturing the constant indignities of campaign reporting while female, including the worst indignity of all: enduring the fixation of Trump himself.
During his campaign events, Trump often called out the news media, but he delighted in singling out Tur, publicly deriding her as “little Katy” and a “third-rate reporter.” Part of the animosity was in response to Tur’s (accurate) reporting about his behavior at rallies, which prompted him to threaten a boycott of NBC News and to demand an apology. (They settled things over the phone, although Tur is adamant that she did not apologize.) On one occasion, Trump went so far as to kiss her — an unwelcome and uninvited act — just before he appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Before I know what’s happening, his hands are on my shoulders and his lips are on my cheek,” Tur writes. “My eyes widen. My body freezes. My heart stops.” Her immediate reaction is telling. “F—. I hope the cameras didn’t see that. My bosses are never going to take me seriously.”
Trump chastises Tur at the end of a July 2015 interview, telling her, “You’ll never be president!” (“Neither will you,” she thinks to herself.) It’s an odd line of attack — Tur is not the one running, after all — but it’s meant to undercut her confidence. “I’m not going to let this guy get into my head,” she tells herself when he mocks her at a rally. “Unbelievable” shifts between a chronological timeline of the race and a detailed breakdown of Election Day, and along the way Tur provides an italicized inner monologue of what she was really thinking.
“Can I say penis on TV?” she deliberates after Trump defends his girth during a GOP primary debate. “What about manhood? Mini-Trump?” She bucks herself up after one of his public attacks: “Shake it off. It’s worse if they think he scares you. Just smile.” And after she realizes that Trump has indeed won the presidency, Tur wonders: “Does anyone really believe he’ll respect term limits?”
This last point is less a constitutional concern than a personal one; by this time Tur was exhausted with the race, with Trump, with concerns about her personal safety — she was constantly harassed by Trump supporters, and after a rally in which the candidate called out her name, Secret Service agents escorted her to her car — and with the uncertainty of what would come next for her career. “This job is hell,” she confides. “On relationships. On your body. On your mind.” To any viewers enthralled with the glamour of campaign reporting, Katy Tur is here to tell you it’s not all that.
We see her hauling a suitcase through a snowy side street in Queens, pants ripped and bloodied after a fall, dripping wet from the waist down, rushing to catch her flight to Iowa. We watch her desperately trying to work a curling iron in the bathroom at a Trump event. “I had to snake the cord around the trash can, and even then the curling iron didn’t make it all the way to the mirror,” she recalls. “I made up the difference with my neck.” (A Trump-supporting hairdresser finally helps her out.) And when Tur sneaks time for a yoga class, she finds a flood of e-mails and texts, because Hillary Clinton has wobbled on the street after a Sept. 11 memorial event, sparking a complete freak-out about the Democratic candidate’s health. “The one hour in a whole goddamn year I turned off my phone,” she complains. “I haven’t shut it off since.”
Tur invariably looks sharp and composed on television, and the author reveals the effort behind it all. “Being a woman is a pain in the ass,” she explains. You have to look ‘good.’ Your hair needs to be neat — not just combed through, but ‘done.’ Blow-dried, ironed, curled, sprayed. Your face needs to be enhanced. Foundation, powder, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick, blush, contour. Your clothes have to look sharp, too. And you can never wear the same thing twice — at least not in the same week. A guy can throw on the same suit every single day and no one would notice.” And she squeezes in this ode to Spanx. “The form-fitting bodysuits might as well be the official sponsor of the female press corps and perhaps a few members of the male press corps, too,” Tur writes. “The hotel mirrors of America know we all need some curve correction. But try to take yourself seriously as you open a package labeled, SHAPE MY DAY HIGH-WAISTED GIRL SHORT.”
In between such personal moments, Tur’s campaign reporting proves perceptive, often previewing challenges the Trump team would face once in office. When she and her NBC News colleagues describe the campaign as a “bare-bones team, debilitated by infighting, poor coordination with allies, and a message that changes with Trump’s whims,” they also capture what Trump’s governing style would resemble. And when a GOP state chair talks to Tur after an “Access Hollywood” tape features Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the p—-,” her dilemma evokes that of White House aides today. “How do I do my job and not turn into a horrible human being?” the official asks her.
Tur’s imagery is occasionally overdone (“We have to face the literal blizzard that is raging outside to confront them on the metaphorical blizzard that Trump’s penis reference has created,” she writes about chasing Trump’s opponents after a GOP debate) but she has a knack for breaking down characters and moments. “He looks like a sad salesman wearing his father’s suit,” she thought when she first met Corey Lewandowski. She dismisses Trump’s campaign staff as “the Bad News Bears of Politics, the people the other candidates didn’t pick.” And the overwhelmingly white crowds at a sweltering Trump rally in Florida are all sporting MAGA hats, “like red sprinkles atop a great melting mass of vanilla ice cream.”
The author spent plenty of time observing such crowds, sometimes too much. Her complaint about female television journalists having to mind their appearances rings a little hollow when Tur assesses Trump supporters by their attire, too, breaking them down into categories such as Cowboy America, Biker America, Angry Conservative Uncle America and Mom America, among others. Still, she notes that outside a rally, a Trump fan could be your firefighter, cashier, or neighbor, friendly and polite. “But inside a Trump rally,” she writes, “these people are unchained. They can drop their everyday niceties. They can yell and scream and say things they’d never say out loud on the outside.” The difference, of course, is the candidate himself. “Trump is crude, and in his halo of crudeness other people get to be crude as well.” That halo encompasses the violence that emerged at some Trump events. “He seemed to encourage it, like an indulgent father who would never ground his son because of a justified fight,” Tur writes.
Such insights are far more useful than, say, the author’s constant anxiety about her job prospects or her dutiful praise for colleagues who might be searching for their names in the book’s index. “I know the company never expected to have me on politics this year, and sometimes I feel like they don’t know what to do with me,” she frets in a typical passage. Fair enough; pretty much every journalist I know is obsessed with rivals and is always gaming out the next gig. But we also learn that “no one at NBC News works harder” than Andrea Mitchell, that the network “wouldn’t have been able to break half as much news” without Ali Vitali, that Kasie Hunt is “a badass”, and that “whenever I hear Lester Holt say my name I get nervous.” Also, she describes Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as “a twenty-first century Rene Descartes.”
I think, therefore I am not interested.
Tur is memorable on the contrivances and idiosyncrasies of television journalism. Nearly every hour, for instance, some anchor asks her, with great earnestness: “What have your sources been telling you?” Tur deadpans to the reader: “As if I have a tiny Trump staffer who lives in my ear and is constantly feeding me new information.” She acknowledges the perverse incentives of campaign reporting, in which correspondents receive more air time and better assignments if the candidates they cover do well. And the most affecting chapter in “Unbelievable” is Tur’s digression into the story of her parents, journalists who upended live television reporting in Los Angeles one car chase, riot and helicopter ride at a time.
Still, she keeps coming back to her campaign comrades, even addressing them directly. “Think about what we’ve been through,” Tur reflects in her final chapter. “For the rest of our lives we’ll need each other just to vouch for stories that our children, spouses, and other friends surely won’t believe.”
Deep into the book, Tur recalls the advice of a longtime television journalist, who managed to remain professional on air no matter how angry or tired or sick he felt. “No one cares,” he told her. “The news is not about you.” Those words stayed with her, she writes. “I can hear him in my head now, prodding me.”
I hope she keeps listening.