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Presidential Debate, Mister Television V. Madam Secretary

Donald Trump is a master of TV. Monday night's one-on-one showdown with Hillary Clinton will be a new test.

Gage Skidmore/Prisma
Gage Skidmore/Prisma
Drew Harwell and Mary Jordan

WASHINGTON — In 1980, in one of his first big TV interviews, Donald Trump was asked whether television was ruining politics.

"It's hurt the process very much," Trump told NBC's Rona Barrett. "Abraham Lincoln would probably not be electable today because of television. He was not a handsome man, and he did not smile at all. He would not be considered to be a prime candidate for the presidency — and that's a shame, isn't it?"

But in the years since Trump lamented the negative effect of TV, he has embraced it as no other presidential candidate in history and has even derided rival candidates he deems not telegenic. Hillary Clinton, he said, doesn't have "a presidential look, and you need a presidential look."

On Monday, Trump is set to face Clinton in a presidential debate before as many as 100 million viewers, an unprecedented audience for a U.S. political broadcast that would approach Super Bowl ratings. As a former reality-show star with unmatched TV experience, Trump will walk onstage with expectations that his showman's flair will be on full display.

While real estate made him money, TV made him famous. Trump, who has never held elected office, became a household name through television, mainly his starring role for 14 seasons in The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. The self-described "ratings machine" is as defined by television as past presidents have been defined by military or public service.

"He had a lifetime of experience with TV, and he understands the power of the medium in a way that many presidents have not," said Leonard Steinhorn, an American University communications professor who teaches a class on the presidential election. "Donald Trump set out in this campaign to dominate the TV experience, to keep people glued in and to define the parameters of how we all experience this election. Hillary Clinton doesn't have the artfulness or the personality to compete with that."

Clinton supporters criticize Trump as a shallow, small-screen showman; they say voters want more than a TV talent in the Oval Office. In the end, they say, 90-minute one-on-one debates will starkly contrast the candidates' depth of knowledge. Public opinion backs that up: Most Americans have higher debate expectations for Clinton than Trump, according to one recent survey conducted by CNN.

"If he was a genius at using TV, more people would like him," said Stuart Stevens, chief adviser to Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012. "His belief is all coverage is good coverage. Maybe that's true if you are selling condos, but it's not true if you are selling the presidency."

Clinton hopes to use Trump's airtime against him by running TV footage of him in her ads. One spot shows children in the glow of a TV screen who are watching Trump imitate a reporter with a physical disability and then describe Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as having "blood coming out of her wherever." The ad ends saying: "Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?"

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Clinton hopes to keep smiling — Photo: Gage Skidmore

But even Trump detractors acknowledge that his ease on TV has enabled him to connect with millions of voters in a country where people watch an average of five hours of television a day.

Every presidential candidate since a cool John F. Kennedy defeated a sweaty Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates has valued the importance of TV. Trump has set himself apart by figuring out how to get more airtime than any candidate in history.

"I've never seen anybody get the time he's gotten," Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican operative and co-chairman of a pro-Trump super PAC. "He's more than willing to pick up the phone, call Fox News' Sean Hannity, call CNN. He's reset the rules for a modern-day campaign."

Trump has a practiced understanding of what grabs TV viewers: saying or doing the unexpected, speaking in short sound bites, repeating himself, not appearing scripted, being blunt and over-the-top.

He uses the nicknames "Crooked Hillary" and "Crazy Bernie" and creates made-for-TV scenes such as his dramatic opening at the Republican National Convention, when he appeared onstage backlit in a cloud of fog to the music of Queen's "We Are the Champions."

"This guy is gold on TV. That was a huge factor in why they turned over their airwaves to him," said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has written a book on presidential debates. "He was getting on TV on his own terms. There were allowances made for him because of his ability to drive ratings."

Cable news was in a viewership slump until Trump came along during the summer of 2015. He boosted ratings and advertising dollars, and got more network attention than any other candidate.Hannity, for example, taped a Trump town hall Wednesday in Cleveland that is scheduled to air this week. The federal "equal-time rule," enacted decades ago to give opposing candidates matching airtime, does not apply to cable broadcasts.

Trump's love of TV goes way back. His childhood home in 1950s Queens featured one of the neighborhood's first TV sets, with a bulky console and tiny screen. In the 1980s, he boasted to reporters about the TV in his Cadillac stretch limousine.

"The only time I could never reach him was when he was watching wrestling," said Jon Bernstein, a Trump attorney in the 1980s. "If he was watching a wrestling match he wanted to watch, you couldn't get him till he was done."

In the 1980s, Trump began sitting for network TV interviews and appeared regularly on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. In the 1990s, he made cameos in movies and Pizza Hut commercials, and he appeared in TV sitcoms, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Suddenly Susan and Sex and the City.

TV remains his constant companion. At his desk in Trump Tower, there are usually two staples: a Diet Coke and a switched-on television.

During an April interview in his office, Trump kept the Masters golf tournament on, watching pros putt while answering questions about his stance on abortion. And during a lunch interview with The Washington Post at his Virginia golf course last month, Trump rarely looked away from Fox News, pausing five times to watch himself on TV. "Look at this. It's all Trump all day long," he said during one moment of inattention. "That's why their ratings are through the roof."

Melania Trump has said that before her husband announced his presidential bid, a typical evening involved watching TV with their son, Barron. "Most of the time it's sports, and when The Apprentice was on, of course we watched The Apprentice," she said.

His devotion to popular TV, including Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, has helped connect the 70-year-old to voters of many ages. Several years ago, he even tweeted about a Hollywood breakup: "Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again."

David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University, said such observations help Trump come off as having similar interests as many Americans, even though he flies around in a private jet.

Trump also did something that no presidential candidate had ever done: He dialed into cable news shows asking to go live to comment on what they were saying. "He's a big personality in the age of celebrity," Rollins said.

Many people, though, find it frightening that the man who wants to be commander-in-chief spends more time watching TV than reading.

When asked last year who he consults for military advice, Trump famously said, "Well, I watch the shows."

"When it comes to the input of information, his looks like one of the most undiversified portfolios I can think of," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.

Trump has said he has little time for reading, but he wakes up as early as 5 a.m. to the buzz of television news. Aides have said he spends hours listening to the morning shows.

Before the campaign, he was known to vanish in the afternoons to watch daytime TV in his penthouse, according to several friends and former Trump Organization employees. At night, he often relaxed in the glow of a talk show or wrestling match.

Clinton has said she finds HGTV home-renovation shows "very calming," has binge-watched The Good Wife, and enjoys dramas such as Madam Secretary, House of Cards and Downton Abbey. But she is much more associated with stacks of briefing papers than a TV remote. She has also not shown the same ease as Trump in unscripted televised moments.

Trump capitalized last week on the fact that Clinton had been sick with pneumonia by talking about his "excellent health" with TV personality Mehmet Oz, best known as Dr. Oz. On the show, Trump theatrically pulled a letter from his physician out of his pocket, as though it were a surprise for the audience and proof of his good health.

That hour-long episode gave Trump valuable free airtime to tell viewers that he rarely gets colds, has very good levels of testosterone and can hit a golf ball farther now, at age 70, than when he was 30.

Also, last week, Trump's campaign said he would give a major announcement about his longtime skepticism of whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Trump then led TV cameras on a tour of his hotel, getting a free commercial. He also put military generals onstage to talk about what a great leader he would be.

His "birther" announcement, in which he falsely blamed Clinton for starting the controversy, came at the end and lasted less than 30 seconds.

"We just got played," CNN's John King said on the air.

Schroeder, the professor and author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, said the long format of the general-election debate is very different.

"He has the element of surprise that makes him so difficult to prepare for," he said. "She has the content down and the experience. Trump can do his zingers, insults and jokes, but not for 90 minutes."

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