TRUMP: Surviving at the Top By Donald Trump Random House. 256. $21.95
FOR YEARS Donald Trump used smoke and gold-plated mirrors to sell the public -- journalists included -- on the illusions that were essential to his success: He was one of the world's richest men. Anything stamped with his five-letter name shot up in value. All those dazzling trophy properties he snatched up with borrowed money in the '80s were worth more than their hyperinflated prices. And, of course, his high-society wife, Ivana, was a full partner in this glittering empire.
When the curtain was pulled back last spring, the mystique was shattered. The overleveraged Trump had to plead with two-bit bankers to rescue him from financial oblivion, and his storybook marriage collapsed amid tawdry revelations about his relationship with a shapely 26-year-old actress, Marla Maples.
Yet here is The Donald in Trump: Surviving at the Top, his second ghostwritten volume about life as a billionaire, babbling about this deal and that triumph as if nobody had noticed that for a time he could not pay his bills. Parts of the book are remarkably defensive -- at one point Trump feels compelled to declare that he is not a whiner -- and there is considerable vitriol aimed at the reporters who once faithfully burnished his image. But what is most striking is Trump's breezy dismissal of his brush with bankruptcy and the fact that his lenders have ordered him to sell off some of his prized assets.
"I had to restructure my holdings and generally streamline my operations and my lifestyle," Trump says, nevertheless declaring this "a great victory." Sure -- in the sense that giving up the Yankees was a great victory for George Steinbrenner.
As someone who has interviewed Trump on numerous occasions, I've always found him to be likable in an obnoxious sort of way. But the problem here is that he's still peddling the same old emperor's clothes when recent events have given us a glimpse of the naked truth.
No one expects celebrity autobiographies to be anything other than self-serving, but this rose-colored view of Trumpian reality is particularly grating. The chapter on Trump's marital breakup contains exactly one reference to Maples, which hardly qualifies as even a modified limited hangout. Surely Random House, which reportedly paid $2 million for these musings, must have expected a little more bedroom and a little less boardroom.
The fundamental flaw of Surviving at the Top, written with Newsweek senior writer Charles Leerhsen, is that the first half of the book -- the part that was hastily reworked in recent months to deal with Trump's mounting setbacks -- sounds nothing like the bombastic Donald that so many love to hate. The voice just doesn't ring true. The effect is more like that of a Newsweek cover story in which cute newsmagazine phrases somehow emanate from the developer's mouth. One can almost hear the tape recorder whirring as Leerhsen tries to coax some semblance of candor from his subject and transform the utterings into a first-person narrative.
Thus we have the New, More Humble Donald wondering aloud, in the words of the old Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" For him, "the important thing is the getting . . . not the having," a sentiment that might explain how this hard-boiled dealmaker dug himself a huge financial hole during the acquisition binge in which he bought the Plaza Hotel and other costly properties like so many Monopoly pieces.
All those scathing tabloid headlines have obviously taken their toll. People love "a fallen hero," Trump complains, declaring himself "a symbol -- of wealth, fame, egotism, greed and probably several other not-so-nice things." In almost the next breath: "Look, I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me, but the fact is, I'm only human." He even finds himself identifying with billionaire recluse Howard Hughes.
Trump makes a half-hearted stab at explaining his breakup with Ivana. The former Czechoslovak model, he says, "lives like a queen" and "aspires to the aristocracy . . . a life involving night after night of society people and gala society events, tuxedos and expensive ball gowns." Trump says he hated the phonies that peopled that world and much prefers to lie in bed on weekends, watching football with the phone nearby.
Having told us in the bestselling The Art of the Deal what a fantastic, superlative, quality job Ivana Trump did in overseeing Trump Castle and the Plaza, the author now says he gave his wife those assignments "partly because she needed something to do with her time."
The Queens-born builder allows that he may have been at fault in the breakup. While Ivana "never really stopped loving me," Trump says, he was "starting to get attention from an unbelievable array of women" just as he grew bored with married life. Rather than discussing the problems with Ivana, he told interviewers how much he enjoyed flirting, thus "pushing the button that blew up our marriage."
But Trump distorts reality by not admitting that he openly carried on with Maples for more than a year, hiding her at hotels and friends' houses while pretending his marriage was intact. He says he "thought briefly" about asking Ivana for an open marriage but rejected the idea as "hypocritical and tawdry" (although his wife says in court papers that Trump did in fact propose such an arrangement and that she vetoed that particular deal). Perhaps the ultimate display of chutzpah comes when Trump declares that "fortunately for her, our nuptial agreement is ironclad," as if a pact that would bar Ivana Trump from suing her husband for half his fortune was in her best interest, not his. THE BOOK abruptly shifts tone after this chapter and turns into the volume that Trump undoubtedly set out to write -- a brash, often funny narrative about how he bought the world's biggest yacht, built the world's biggest casino, rescued the world's best airline and planned the world's tallest building. True, one would never guess from this upbeat account that Trump paid too much for the Plaza, that two of his Atlantic City casinos are losing money and that the Trump Shuttle is up for sale only a year after Trump painted his name on the planes. And yes, the lofty view from Trump Tower's penthouse can be rather amusing when it comes to politics. The way to restore American competitiveness, it seems, is to let a few rich developers and junk-bond types -- say, himself, Henry Kravis, Carl Icahn and Ron Perelman -- oversee negotiations with Japan and Europe.
Still, Trump the Author is far more appealing in his how-I-bamboozled-the-other-guy mode, recounting his faceoffs with Merv Griffin and Frank Lorenzo. He dispenses tycoon advice (my personal favorite: Call marginal people during lunch hour so you can get credit for the effort without actually having to talk to them). And he reels off some wicked celebrity anecdotes, from Frank Sinatra calling his wife, Barbara, a "piece of human garbage" over dinner to Leona Helmsley cursing out Trump for bringing a "tramp" to one of her parties.
Unfortunately, The Donald cannot resist venting his spleen in sophomoric fashion at his media antagonists, from columnist Liz Smith to cartoonist Garry Trudeau. In the book's most tasteless passages, Trump gratuitously assails the lifestyle of Malcolm Forbes, saying that the late publisher carried on a "personal vendetta" against him because he rarely advertised in Forbes's magazine and once refused a favor for two of Forbes's male friends.
The reason for Trump's ire is that Forbes Magazine last May was the first major publication to question the developer's net worth and suggest that he was having cash-flow problems. Even at this late date, Trump simply refuses to acknowledge the obvious -- that the piece was right on target. Weeks after the story appeared, Trump could not make his interest payment on a casino bond and had to be bailed out with emergency loans from a consortium of banks. No less an authority than the New Jersey Casino Control Commission recently confirmed that Trump may owe more than he is worth.
Rather than tackle the difficult question of whether his ambitious reach exceeded his grasp, Donald Trump chooses to heap abuse on a dead publisher. If that's how one survives at the top, then perhaps it is a lonely pinnacle indeed. Howard Kurtz just completed a three-year tour as The Post's New York bureau chief.