April 27 (Bloomberg) -- If anyone can grow up to be president, does that mean anyone who runs should be covered as if he could be president, even when he couldn’t possibly be?
I’m speaking of Donald Trump. The press is caught in a spiral, covering his possible candidacy and rise in the polls, which necessitate covering him even more.
Trump enjoys the eternal appeal of the barker at the circus, the motivational speaker, the in-your-face huckster. Not for him the buttoned-down demeanor of a CEO with a board of stuffed shirts. The huckster never has to prove he’s really successful -- Trump could be in kneecap-breaking hock, for all we know -- so long as he lives as if he is.
What’s made this brush with candidacy different than his previous ones is that he’s ridden the discredited birther movement for all its worth.
Big-name Republicans, not wanting to lose the roughly 45 percent of their voters who still don’t believe Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen, talk about the issue in careful code: “I take the president at his word” (House Speaker John Boehner) or “It’s distracting” (Sarah Palin).
Not so the real-estate developer with an ego as tall as a skyscraper. Every time the supposed facts his crack team of investigators discovers in Hawaii are exposed as hokum, he doubles down.
Obama’s grandmother never said she was present at his birth in Kenya; a translator did, and it was immediately corrected. Obama’s certificate of live birth is genuine. His birth notice in Honolulu newspapers wasn’t part of a grand conspiracy to clear the way for him to be president someday.
After the White House today released copies of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, Trump was triumphant where others might be apologetic. “From day one, I said I hope he gives the certificate, because I don’t want this issue clouding a campaign,” Trump told reporters.
Obama, clearly amazed he was having to address such an issue at a press conference aired live by the networks, said it’s time to stop being “distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.”
That Trump rode such an ugly horse this far is a stain on some Republicans that exposes how unappealing the roster of presidential aspirants is. One of the best potential candidates, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, said Monday he won’t run. That could mean his close friend, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, gets in. Or it could mean that Trump and other out-of-the-mainstream candidates, such as Representative Michele Bachmann, continue to drown out more-plausible, less carnival-ready alternatives. Heard much from Tim Pawlenty lately?
Trump’s ascension shows our politics are now so roiled that any outsider is appealing. When I spent time with him, in 1999, he was a harmless gadfly, pre-“Apprentice,” frustrated that he didn’t get more attention for himself and his books. He built his presidential exploratory committee on spec, as if it were a gaudy new building he would flip at any moment.
He had his constituency -- “The guy who picks up the bus at the Port Authority, gets $50 in chips and a ticket for the all-you-can-eat buffet and takes the missus to the Trump Taj Mahal, he loves me,” Trump told me then -- and his mansions (his murals rivaled the Sistine Chapel; Mar-a-Lago was superior to the White House), and his name plastered everywhere. It just wasn’t enough.
Even after an ugly divorce from Ivana and a tabloid-hot romance with Marla “Best Sex I Ever Had” Maples, he could quickly correct for running low on family values. “I could be married in 24 hours,” he said, shining the lamp in the back of his limousine on his then-companion, now-wife, model Melania Knauss. “Is this the next first lady of the United States, or what?”
His marital status isn’t all that’s changed. This time around he’s pro-life, pro-religion, pro-bombing for Mideast oil, and anti-health care reform. (He used to support a single-payer system.) He once proposed a 20 percent surtax on Japanese imports, back when he hated Japan for the Toyotas they made the way he now loathes the Chinese for the cheap building materials they provide.
Trump is a more clownish and vulgar version of the amateurs who jump into presidential politics without engaging much but their mouths previously: the Pats (Buchanan and Robertson), moralists (Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer), and businessmen (tire magnate Morry Taylor, data-processing magnate Ross Perot and magnate-chronicler Steve Forbes).
At least some of the amateurs had a cause. Perot, whose flameout included imagined black helicopters buzzing his daughter’s wedding, ran on the idea that deficits were bad, Buchanan on “America First,” Forbes on a flat tax. Trump is running on almost no ideas at all.
That doesn’t seem to bother one high-profile conservative, Franklin Graham. The Christian evangelist and son of Billy Graham told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that the more you listen to Trump, “the more you say to yourself, you know, maybe the guy is right.”
Donald Trump, prospective candidate of the godly set. Try selling that as a reality show.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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