“Be so good, they can’t ignore you.” Megyn Kelly claims that’s her motto, cribbed from Steve Martin. But on Tuesday night, as the Fox News anchor and host of The Kelly File took her first shot at a prime-time special, Megyn Kelly Presents, complete with a much-talked-about sit-down with Donald Trump, among others, the rest of us learned something about Kelly: Sometimes when people can’t ignore you, it’s because you’re bad.
Granted, Kelly could have been worse. But the special was so overhyped, the end result was particularly disappointing. Her fans have been anticipating this showdown since last August, when she brought up Trump’s history of misogynistic comments as a co-moderator of the first GOP debate. They bristled when Trump retweeted a comment calling her a “bimbo” and suggested that she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” They devoured the Vanity Fair cover where she refused to apologize to Trump for “doing good journalism,” and they followed the salacious reports of phone calls between Kelly’s boss, Roger Ailes, and the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. Mostly, they waited patiently for Kelly to attack. (She’d remained silent on Twitter.) But when she finally got her chance, opening Megyn Kelly Presents with a promise that “nothing is off limits,” her questions were shockingly bland.
The interview aired just days after the New York Times exposé on Trump’s misogyny became the most-read Times story of the year, but it was pre-taped, and Kelly didn’t delve into Trump’s history of sexism beyond how it applied to her. “Let’s talk about us,” she said, grinning. She used the phrase “yours truly” more than once. When she inquired why Trump contested the question she posed at the GOP debate, he complained, “I thought it was unfair… My whole life is a debate, but I have never actually debated before.” But she didn’t press him further after that flimsy response, and he never offered any apologies beyond a bemused “Excuse me!” in regard to retweeting the word “bimbo.” Asked if he regretted the mean-spirited comments he’d made about John McCain and Carly Fiorina, he shrugged, “You make a mistake, you go forward… to look back and say, ‘Gee, I wish I didn’t do this or that, I don’t even think that’s healthy.” In fact, he defended his casual cruelty. “If I were soft, if I were ‘presidential,’ if I would not have fought back, I don’t think I would have been successful,” he said. (It’s one of EW’s 7 big moments from the interview.)
This mild testiness was about as tense as things got. Kelly’s other questions actually seemed like they were intended to humanize Trump. The two talked about the death of Trump’s older brother, Fred, who died as an alcoholic at the age of 43. Kelly wondered if Trump became a bullier because he was bullied himself as a kid. (Short answer? No.) She put on her best furrowed-brow face and asked if Trump had ever been “wounded” emotionally, as if she were a therapist speaking to an abused child. That’s when Trump offered the closest thing to an honest response that he could muster: “When I’m wounded, I go after people hard, and I try to unwound myself.” No surprise there.
On Twitter, people complained that Kelly had lost her edge. “Coming up soon in Kelly-Trump interview: ‘Do you like ice cream?’; ‘Fave color?’; ‘Backstreet Boys or N*SYNC?'” joked Pete Catapano of Salon. And then, as if to prove him right, Kelly capped off her special with a rapid-fire collection of “shocking” revelations: his favorite movie is Citizen Kane, his favorite book is All Quiet on the Western Front, and, uh… he doesn’t actually read books. “I read passages,” he confessed. “I read areas. I read chapters. I don’t have time.” So when he says he loved All Quiet on the Western Front, he really just meant he loved reading the spine?
Kelly often says she wants to become a combination of Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and Charlie Rose, but she would’ve done better to just be herself. She’s not dishy enough to be a gossip hound like Walters, though she worked with Walters’ longtime producer, Bill Geddie, on the special. She’s not warm enough to be Oprah, and she doesn’t have Rose’s depth. Her strengths are that she’s sharp and quick-witted, which is why she might’ve been better served by a live special that would allow her to improvise questions that her subjects didn’t expect. Instead, as she zipped through interviews with Trump, Laverne Cox, Michael Douglas, and Robert Shapiro, she was trapped by the hour-long format, doomed to rush through as many pre-determined questions as she could in a very short segment. Every time, she failed to bring up the most interesting topics. She never addressed the controversy surrounding Cox’s upcoming role in Fox’s reboot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She didn’t push Shapiro on the moral implications of his O.J. Simpson defense. These weren’t conversations; they were a collection of mediocre sound bites. And why was Michael Douglas even there, beyond the fact that his movies probably test well among Fox News viewers?
As for Trump, Kelly must’ve known that no matter how poorly the interview went, both of them stood to benefit. Trump was making nice with one of his most vocal critics, and Kelly was likely getting a ratings boost. It’s hard to criticize her for giving her so-called enemy exactly the kind of attention he wants. What media entity hasn’t been complicit in the massive amount of media coverage devoted to Trump? But really, this wasn’t a crisis of politics. It was a crisis of entertainment. There was no intimacy between Kelly and her subjects. No tears. No breaking news. Just a lot of wasted potential. In the most talked-about quote of the night, Trump insisted that if he doesn’t win, he’ll consider his run “a total and complete waste of time, energy, and money.” You might describe his appearance on Kelly’s special the same way.