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'Unbelievable' chronicles the 'most unlikely, exciting, ugly ... bizarre campaign' in US history

NBC asked Tur to cover a couple of Trump events while the network’s political reporters followed more serious contenders. Five hundred and ten days later, she watched as Trump won.

Unbelievable By Katy Tur HarperCollins 304 pp.
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  • Erik Spanberg

American politics have calmed so much since 2016. So why not take a look back at those days of yesteryear when Donald Trump blew up conventional campaign wisdom on a near-constant basis?

OK, the first half of my premise is wrong. But the rise of President Trump and his unexpected election victory over Hillary Clinton will be studied and analyzed as long as American politics exist. The first entries in what will be a long line of memoirs and insider chronicles have emerged in recent months, including “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, and Clinton’s own instant bestseller, “What Happened.”

Next year promises the third installment in the Mark Halperin-John Heilemann “Game Change” series. And so on.

Sure to rank among the most entertaining accounts is Unbelievable, a just-right mixture of journalism lunacy, road warrior angst, determined reporting, and unflinching ambition by NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor Katy Tur.

Tur’s indefatigable shadowing of candidate Trump elicited taunts from the future president, who mocked her as “little Katy” during rallies and whipped campaign crowds into frenzies on social media and inside arenas in opposition to her and other reporters.

Almost as improbable as Trump’s successful campaign was Tur’s ascension to the front ranks of TV news. In the summer of 2015, she was based in London as a foreign correspondent, happily knocking out features and reports at a reasonable enough pace to allow for regular visits to Paris to see her new boyfriend.

She flew back to New York for a quick stateside visit, expecting to be in the US for a week. But Tur’s trip coincided with Trump gliding down an escalator in his Manhattan skyscraper to declare himself a Republican candidate for president. He called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers at that kickoff press conference, alienated business partners, and became the butt of media jokes dismissing him as a soon-to-be former candidate.

NBC asked Tur to cover a couple of Trump events during her trip to New York since the network’s political reporters were already committed to serious contenders such as Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Five hundred and ten days later, and after filing 3,800 or so reports on-air, Tur’s campaign adventure ended at 3 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016 at the Hilton Midtown in New York as Trump celebrated his ascension to the White House.

“The Trump campaign was the most unlikely, exciting, ugly, trying, and all-around bizarre campaign in American history,” Tur writes. “It roiled America and with it, my little life.”

The book alternates between snippets from Election Day and the course of the campaign. Tur, the daughter of a scrappy entrepreneurial Southern California couple who ushered in the age of local TV news helicopters, is blessed and cursed with the adrenaline rush of scrambling for exclusive interviews, fighting to land even the most incremental of stories, and enduring bad food, bad hotels, and bad flights in service to becoming a fixture on NBC and MSNBC recounting the bizarre odyssey of Trump.

Before Tur ever met Trump, the media-obsessed candidate took notice of her. During a speech in New Hampshire in June, 2015, Tur, in one of her early assignments, had her head down through much of the event, taking notes from Trump's remarks on her smartphone and posting updates on Twitter.

“Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me,” Trump said, ad-libbing his remarks and shocking Tur.

Soon enough, Trump would turn to trolling Tur when he didn’t like her reporting, including a Twitter barrage in which he deemed her a “third-rate reporter.” She would, as the campaign went on and Trump encouraged supporters to take a hostile view of what he described as unfair media coverage by Tur and others, require enhanced security protection due to fears of possible attacks. Death threats became commonplace.

Throughout “Unbelievable,” Tur professes wonder at how her flimsy one-off assignment covering a never-was presidential hopeful morphed into must-see-TV. And she allows readers to glimpse her insecurities and ambition, sharing the mini-dramas of losing a plum spot on the nightly news or seeing a colleague land a coveted story, all while sacrificing friendships, family, sleep, and stability, among other things.

Indignities abound. All of the hurried meals and abbreviated sleeping cause Tur and the press corps to gain weight, suffer frazzled nerves, and take on an often-wan appearance. Coffee is a constant companion, sludgy or not.

“I really need to start waking up earlier,” Tur tells herself at one point. “I also need to stop going to bed at 2 a.m. But right now I need to wash my hair, throw on a dress, and paint my face.”

Spanx become go-to accessories for TV reporters whose sugar-carb diets wreak professional hazards during what feels like a never-ending run of speeches, caucuses, primaries, and the general election.

At a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tur frantically struggles in a cramped women’s restroom to curl her hair before going on-air. A Trump supporter, who happens to be a hair-stylist, takes pity on Tur and helps out, briefly restoring her faith before encountering a crowd that cheers Trump’s mention of accusations that Vladimir Putin orchestrated the killing of journalists in Russia.

“I hate them, but I would never kill them” Trump tells the audience in Michigan. “I’d never do that.” He goes on to call reporters “lying, disgusting people.” The crowd roars – and turns to boo the reporters nearby.

Just another day at the office.

In November 2015, after appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” while the show was on location in New Hampshire, Tur hung around since Trump himself was going to join co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on-set for a separate interview. When Trump arrived, he approached Tur on his way to the set, put his hands on her shoulders, and kissed her cheek.

“I’m mortified,” Tur writes, recalling her panic that the unwanted greeting might have made it on camera. It didn’t.

But Trump wanted everyone to know about it. During his subsequent interview, Trump told Scarborough, apropos of nothing, “But actually, Katy Tur – what happened? She was so great. I saw her back there. I gave her a big kiss. She was fantastic.”

Tur overcomes this indignity as well as plenty of taunts, personal attacks, and other feints from Trump and his supporters during the ensuing year, establishing her reputation as unflappable.

Then, too, she hangs on to her sense of humor.

On Super Tuesday during primary season, Tur goes to Florida to cover a planned Trump victory party at his golf club in Jupiter. Preparing for her on-camera reports later that day, she scouts the “live location” — media shorthand for where reporters can stand in front of cameras and report at campaign events — as well as the ballroom where Trump will speak.

Of the ballroom, she writes, “And, my word, it’s spectacular. I don’t mean the architecture or the design. I mean the food: a table of fancy finger food, including the campaign trail’s rarest food form, fresh vegetables. Carrots, celery, peppers, and tomatoes, just washed, glistening in the twilight of a Florida sunset. It’s so beautiful I want to cry.”

Asides like that one will make readers with political appetites happy to say, “I’m with Tur.”

 

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