Defending Trump Is a Has-Been’s Best Hope

Dershowitz, Giuliani, Starr, and others relive their glory days by latching onto the president.

Donald Trump and Alan Dershowitz
Mark Wilson / Getty

Trace the careers of Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, both of whom joined Donald Trump’s impeachment team last week, and you notice a similar arc. As young men, each rapidly ascended to the upper echelons of the legal profession. At age 28, Dershowitz became the youngest tenured professor in the history of Harvard Law School. At age 37, Starr was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often called the second-most-powerful court in America. In middle age, each reached the pinnacle of his fame. When Dershowitz was 52, Hollywood turned his most famous case—the acquittal of the socialite Claus von Bülow—into a blockbuster movie. Five years later, he helped defend O. J. Simpson. Starr, at age 51, wrote the report that congressional Republicans used to impeach Bill Clinton. In 1998, Time magazine gave Starr equal billing with the president in anointing the two as Men of the Year.

Then, as often happens with advanced age, each man’s public profile began to recede. After retiring from Harvard in 2013, noted Connie Bruck in a recent New Yorker profile, Dershowitz began “finding media invitations elusive.” Starr left Washington for the low-key Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, where he served as dean, and then Baylor University, where he served as president. Until recently, Americans too young to remember Clinton’s impeachment would likely not have known who Starr was.

But now, at ages 81 and 73, respectively, Dershowitz and Starr are back at center stage. They are the latest faded luminaries seeking to revive their fame—and blemish their reputation—by shilling for Donald Trump. Call it the revenge of the has-beens.

There’s nothing new about aging celebrities craving a return to the limelight. Many of America’s most famous athletes—Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Reggie White, Ryne Sandberg—came out of retirement, usually with unhappy results. Gary Hart—a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988—almost launched a long-shot bid two decades later, in 2004. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, ran again quixotically in 1984. Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska who achieved notoriety by entering the Pentagon Papers into the official Senate record in 1971, unsuccessfully sought the 2008 Democratic and libertarian presidential nominations and entered—and soon dropped out of—the Democratic presidential race last year, at the age of 89.

The impulse isn’t hard to understand. Donna Rockwell, a co-author of one of the few academic studies on the psychology of celebrity, told me, “Fame is an addiction like any other addiction where one’s neurological set gets acclimated to a particular level of incoming stimuli. When that recedes, the neurology keeps grasping after that … People become addicted to being ‘in the show.’ And once you’ve been in the show and you know the heady experience that that is, there is a clamoring forevermore to be back in the show.” A former child actor told Rockwell, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.”

What’s new in the Trump era isn’t the yearning for political rehabilitation, but the opportunity. Trump’s recklessness, cruelty, and corruption have led many Republicans in the prime of their career to avoid working for, or publicly defending, him. “Help Wanted,” read a 2017 Washington Post headline: “Why Republicans Won’t Work for the Trump Administration.” In 2018, CNN reported that Trump was experiencing “an unheard-of problem: The president can’t find a lawyer.”

This has provided the has-beens their opening. One early example was Paul Manafort, who in the Ronald Reagan era helped run a lobbying firm that Newsweek once called “the hottest shop in town.” But by 2016, as my colleague Franklin Foer has detailed, this once “indispensable man,” now in his late 60s, was no longer “missed in professional circles. He was without a big-paying client, and held heavy debts.” The Trump campaign, which Manafort briefly ran, offered a “return to relevance.”

While Manafort was angling to be Trump’s campaign manager, Newt Gingrich was angling to be his running mate. Two decades earlier, Time had named Gingrich, then the 52-year-old Republican speaker of the House, its Man of the Year. But after a failed 2012 presidential bid, Gingrich’s star had dimmed, an excruciating prospect for a man who once said, “If you’re not in The Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist.”

Gingrich didn’t get the vice president’s job. But his incessant defenses of Trump—particularly on Fox News—have afforded the 76-year-old what Politico has called “a rare third political life.” He has already published three Trump hagiographies. He’s appeared on Fox News or written op-eds for its website nine times so far in 2020 alone. All this apologizing for Trump, however, has its reputational costs. In 2017, Gingrich suggested that the former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been murdered as part of a political cover-up. A spokesman for the slain man’s survivors responded, “He can never know the deep pain he has caused the Rich family, and I hope he is held accountable either in this world or the next.”

Rudy Giuliani once won Time’s marquee year-end honor, too. He was Person of the Year in 2001, after helping rally New York and the nation after 9/11. The following year, he received an honorary knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. At the time, the head of the Republican House Campaign Committee called him “the hottest political property in America.” But, like Gingrich, Giuliani could not parlay his fame into a successful presidential bid. And after he lost in 2008, “he seemed to fade from the headlines,” and his “high appearance fees dropped like a stone.”

But during the Trump campaign, Giuliani—whom The New York Times called “desperate to return to political relevance”—made it back into the limelight the hard way: by defending Trump’s least defensible actions. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape, which featured Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women, Giuliani went on all five Sunday-morning shows to defend Trump’s character. At another point in the campaign, he accused Hillary Clinton of hiding secret medical ailments. After being hired in 2018 as Trump’s personal lawyer, he told Fox News, with a straight face, that “the president’s an honest man.”

Since news broke last year that Giuliani—now 76 years old—was running a parallel foreign policy in Ukraine, his celebrity has only grown. And so has what The New Yorker calls his “casual recklessness.” On a Fox News appearance in September, he shouted “Shut up, moron!” at a liberal guest. In October, he butt-dialed an NBC reporter, who overheard the former mayor telling associates, “The problem is, we need some money. We need a few hundred thousand.” In a December interview, he told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, “I have no business interests in Ukraine”—before adding, “I’ve done two business deals in Ukraine. I’ve sought four or five others.” Giuliani’s television appearances have grown so erratic that journalists have begun openly speculating about whether he might be drunk.

But this hasn’t dissuaded other has-beens. In November, The Washington Post reported that Mark Penn—the most influential pollster of the Clinton era, who became a pariah among Democrats after Hillary Clinton’s 2008 defeat—had visited the White House to give Trump political advice. Penn, 65—who now appears regularly on Fox News and depicts Trump as a victim of the “deep state”—is “finally being talked about again,” according to Politico.

When I asked Rockwell what allows the once famous to reconcile themselves to comparative obscurity, she said the transition was hard. There’s a “lot more amygdala activation when you’re famous,” she said, adding, “It takes the neurology a really long time to work through that, to reframe it as a graceful end to a beautiful career.” The people who manage the process best, she has written, focus on “becoming part of something larger than oneself,” thus “countering fame’s natural tendency toward narcissism,” and “dedicating all one’s drives and ambitions into making a real difference, in a meaningful way, in the world.”

It’s a lovely sentiment. But Giuliani’s approach—which he summed up in his December interview with Nuzzi as “My attitude about my legacy is Fuck it”—is much more likely to get you on Fox News.