The following review first appeared in The National Book Review:
Unbelievable: My Front Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
By Katy Tur
Dey St. Books 304 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
Much of the 2016 presidential campaign could trigger an attack of existential angst. One of the few exceptions to its substantive squalor was NBC’s deployment of a squad of young political journalists to cover the primaries. The network branded them the “Road Warriors” and none were more gritty and tenacious than Katy Tur.
With only a lackluster resume of fluff pieces, Tur was casually assigned to the ostensibly doomed campaign of Donald Trump at its unveiling. Such fortuitous accidents can make a career and Tur’s seizing of that opportunity is the subject of Unbelievable: My Front Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History.
Tur volleys back and forth between her initial days on the Trump beat and Election Day, between the preposterous notion of The Donald running for president and the even more preposterous reality of his succeeding. The bouncing backward and forward in time helps convey the madcap confusion of her assignment. The reader, like the reporter, has to keep checking where in the campaign they are, what day it is, and which Trump profanation is exploding in each chapter.
Tur’s account is punctuated with the most outlandish of Trump’s campaign trail utterances, a greatest hits list of his moral and political obscenities. Tur was there to witness them all and to note at each of his apparent political suicides that the subject was not dying from self-inflicted wounds, but growing in strength.
Like many a political reporter’s book before it, Tur’s captures the junk food and coffee-fueled antics of reporters between campaign stops, as well as the flirtations and affairs to which hard-drinking, exhausted people under stressful conditions and tight quarters are prone. It also captures the intensely competitive but mutually respectful camaraderie among seasoned reporters who know the self-denial and single-minded tenacity required to make it through an entire election season: sacrificing friends, partners, self-confidence, and any vestige of a normal life for the erratic, slap-dash pace of the campaign trail. All the while Tur captures the ego-inflating, adrenal rush of working within the blast radius of the most infamous presidential campaign in American history.
So self-deprived and punch-drunk is the existence of a campaign reporter, at times Tur was unable to remember what city she was in and what the contours of her life were outside her political beat. The dream job, the boyfriend, the apartment in London, friends, regular meals, all were relinquished in her pursuit of climbing the ladder of corporate news.
Tur also confesses the inherent kinship of interest that a campaign reporter feels with the candidate she covers. As Trump’s political fortunes rose, so did her professional opportunities. She suffered from a schizophrenic ambition to be the lead NBC reporter on the Trump campaign while dreading the personal chaos that his continued success prolonged.
Halfway through the book Tur lapses into her journalistic pedigree, recounting her parents’ modern-day Walter Burns-Hildy Johnson pairing. The Turs, among other things, pioneered helicopter reporting, including being the first to locate O.J. Simpson’s fugitive Bronco on the Los Angeles freeway. Much of their scoop-obsessed career took place with a young Katy in tow. She has a ravenous addiction to getting the story first pulsing through her veins.
Tur’s book takes us back into the filthy, manic reality show that was Donald Trump, his power built on a fabulous deception that all of us were in on thanks to reporting like hers. She describes the mighty yet thin-skinned executive living in his own carefully constructed skyscraper universe, like Charles Laughton in The Big Clock, always controlling it, never venturing outside of it, ever judging the outside world through the lens of his garish wealth.
Throughout the campaign, Trump’s desperate craving for power, approval, and love led to a bizarre relationship with Tur herself. He couldn’t abide—yet consistently called attention to—her unforgiving questioning of his policy proposals and her literal accounts of his campaign speeches. She recalls his hot-and-cold interactions with her, alternately badgering, flirting, chastising, even kissing her. Ever the crass one, he bragged on-air about the stolen kiss in a twisted, chauvinistic attempt to trivialize her reputation.
He also toyed with Tur’s physical safety, whipping up his raucous crowds against her personally. A surprise of the book is not that she was cursed out and spit on, but that she wasn’t physically injured at some point. Tur reveals that NBC mobilized a team of bodyguards for their correspondents, comprised largely of retired Secret Service agents, who never took their eyes off her.
The book does not confine itself, however, to campaign trail stories. Tur is insightful on the subject of Trump’s “calculated vagueness” within his campaign trail palaver: he says just enough to leave some in the audience thinking that he’s joking, others that he will deliver on every outrageous threat, and still others that he’s just a conservative maverick prone to hyperbole.
Tur also targets the liberal echo to Trump’s attacks on the press. While he suggested violence toward journalists that he didn’t like, anti-Trump critics vilified the fourth estate for fueling his campaign through wall-to-wall coverage of his depraved rallies. Tur observes just how reprehensible the press can be to those on both sides of the political fence. She eloquently reminds us of the obligation journalists have to educate voters, publicizing the views and attitudes, prejudices and predilections of any popular candidate, however obscene they may be.
Katy Tur had a unique, ringside seat to every one of Trump’s Bacchanalian orgies of hatred and bigotry. Perhaps his poverty-stricken sense of civic duty and presidential comportment did give voice to the frustrations of middle-America. Or perhaps he did just con the rubes once again into backing the status quo against their own interests. Whatever the historical reality, Tur’s book leaves little doubt that Trump seduced a nation that once prided itself on higher ideals – New Deals and Camelots – and unleashed its political devils.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.