It was a two-week stretch of media omnipresence that is now the norm for Donald Trump.

He was on the cover of GQ. The Washington Post was chronicling a war of words between the real estate mogul and a rival in Washington. The New York Times was reporting on the sudden popularity of a certain Trump property in Manhattan. The Associated Press was writing about Trump's surprising, outsider bid.

It was May 1984. The feud covered by The Post involved Trump, then the owner of the United States Football League's New Jersey Generals (remember them?), and the chief executive of the Washington Federals, another team in that now-long-defunct league. It had nothing to do with members of Congress. The attention-getting real estate featured in a Times story was a Madison Avenue parcel Trump planned to sell at a record price per square foot; it wasn't Trump Tower, which has recently become a tourist attraction, according to a Times article this week. And the outsider bid described by the AP was an effort by Trump to buy Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins (which ultimately didn't happen), not to become president of the United States.


But if you close your eyes and focus on the broad themes, rather than the details, this could very easily be any month of the 2016 White House campaign.

Here's the point: It might be true that the media created — or at least helped create — the Trump phenomenon. But it did so some three decades ago.

In Politico Magazine's annual media issue, out on Thursday, Jack Shafer argues convincingly that it's too convenient and too simple to blame the press for pushing Trump to the front of the Republican presidential pack. It's more accurate to say that Trump, by hamming it up since the 1980s, turned himself into a media sensation and a household name — an act that made the success of his populist campaign possible many years later.

What all these Trump stories, good or bad, have advanced is a level of nationwide name ID that other candidates couldn't have bought if they tried. Half the slog in a political campaign is building recognition, which is one reason family dynasties persist in politics. Even a minor amount of celebrity can propel an otherwise undistinguished citizen into office. Think of all the local TV newscasters who've switched to elective politics to cash in on their familiar faces.
Trump, by the time he ran for president, was in another category entirely. ... Don't fact-check me on this, but if you added up all this "free media" over the years, it might exceed $1 trillion.

I can't certify the $1 trillion figure, either, but Shafer's point is spot-on. So the question, then, is whether the media deserves a good scolding for lavishing so much attention on Trump all those years ago — attention that eventually set him up to become the likely Republican nominee for president.


The short answer is no, though I'm certain Trump's personality brought him a bit more coverage than he deserved, just as it does now. What's clear from reading old stories about Trump is that journalists couldn't fathom the day when he would take aim at the Oval Office. They couldn't possibly have foreseen what would come of helping to build and then cement such a carefully crafted and beneficial brand.

If they'd had a crystal ball, Trump reporting surely would have been tougher. But he wasn't seen as a political aspirant, so he wasn't scrutinized like one. Instead, Trump was considered a showman whose baubles of choice appeared to be pro sports franchises, not nuclear launch codes. What possible harm could come of a little sensationalism and hyperbole?


It's not that the media never criticized Trump, but the criticism was pretty soft. That GQ cover story ribbed him for his hair (of course), his suits ("maybe a little too flared in the leg for someone who lives east of the Hudson") and, yes, his small hands. This was a thing even then.


But the profile screamed success. In fact, the word appeared in all caps — SUCCESS — right next to Trump's face on the front of the magazine. Trump's image was crystallizing without much skepticism: bold, rich, powerful. These are the same characteristics he is running on today.

Another piece from May 1984 makes the media's collective state of mind apparent. It's a New York Daily News column by Mike Lupica, who referred to Trump, then 37, as the "Boy Builder."


Lupica began by explaining that Trump had been trying throughout that year's USFL season (the Generals were 8-2 on the date of publication) to get the prominent sportswriter to pay attention to the team. Lupica had skipped 28 games in a row. He described a remarkable scene in which Trump surprised him on the street one day.

I was buying the papers at my quaint little newsstand when all of a sudden the Boy Builder jumped off the rack from the cover of Gentlemen's Quarterly, tapped me on the shoulder, grinned his sappy grin and said, "Gotcha." The headline in GQ read: "Donald Trump Gets What He Wants." I thought about running. I gave up. I bought the magazine.
The Boy Builder and I went back to my apartment for coffee. He gets what he wants.
If it isn't GQ, then it's Sports Illustrated, which a couple of months ago did a major fawn over Trump that included everything except baby pictures. If it isn't SI, it's the New York Times Magazine (I like to look at the pictures). Trump was waiting for me there not long ago; I reached down for the Sunday papers on my doorstep and before I knew it, Trump was scrambling eggs for us. I read an NFL draft story in the New York News. The first quote was from Trump. He was in Monday's paper, too.
I feel that it is only a matter of time before Don and I are double dating. I just hope that Don and his wife Ivana like Mexican food. And, of course, bowling.
You want to know what the worst part is? I'll tell you what the worst part is: I'm sort of starting to like the Boy Builder.

Amazing. Then Lupica penned a paragraph that perfectly captured the media's estimation of Trump's ceiling.

In a very short period of time, Trump has become the second most recognizable of all pro football owners. Now, he's never going to be Al Davis, and he shouldn't try; Al will wipe his championship rings with Trump's ties. But I don't think Trump wants to be Davis. He just wants to be famous. And he is.

Lupica's appraisal seems laughable 32 years later. He thought Trump would never be bigger than Al Davis. He thought Trump's ambition was merely to be famous.

And you know what? Maybe that really was Trump's goal at the time. I think we give him far too much credit if we believe that he had a grand plan in the spring of 1984 to one day become a presidential contender by stalking Mike Lupica and otherwise thrusting himself onto the pages of every publication in America.

Yet that is what happened. The media unwittingly helped Trump get to where he is today. It's just that the help came a long time ago.