On a Different Plane
Money Bought Donald Trump an Unreal Life. Is His Presidential Bid Another Fantasy?
By Robin Givhan
Yeah, baby, this is style. Better than a chat in a boardroom.
Trump is a creature of arenas and ballrooms, mansions and estates. Private jets, not twin-engine Cessnas. He needs a room where he can lumber from one conversational pod to another, where he can take long, broad steps that keep him moving when the talk turns flat or he gets bored. In too intimate a space, all of his lunging and sprinting and bigness would have him crashing into walls like Gulliver in Lilliput.
Trump is the phoenix of real estate whizzes. From the smoldering cinders of the real estate crash of the '80s, he rose from more than $9 billion in debt to create a fortune he estimates at $5 billion. From Trump Tower to 40 Wall Street, from Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City to Mar-a-Lago, a private club in Palm Beach, Trump has dotted this country's landscape with bold strokes of glass, chrome, gold leaf, marble and his moniker molded in shiny brass relief. He has dabbled in blondes, thrown admiring glances at brunettes. Then the fox bought the whole henhouse with the rights to the Miss Universe pageant.
He has written books in which he attacks those who did him wrong or who weren't supportive when he was in debt. He berates them. He mocks them. He gloats over their misfortune.
"After I was finished with this jerk . . . I am proud to say, he lost a lot of money on the transaction," he writes in "Trump: The Art of the Comeback."
But just when it appeared immaterial whether his grasp could extend any further, that his ego could inflate by one more millimeter--bam!--his universe expands. Trump forms an exploratory committee to test the viability of a presidential campaign on the Reform Party ticket.
"I'm doing it because I think I can help a lot of people. I can save Social Security, reduce taxes, repair the health care system," Trump says. "I think if I did it, I'd do a very good job.
"I think the Republicans and Democrats have a huge advantage. The Reform Party is new and doesn't have the machinery and the wealth. With my wealth, I can make up for that. But whoever runs on the Reform Party ticket has an uphill battle."
Will Trump really run? Can he possibly be serious, this man who has lived his life like a carnival impresario, transforming his name into shorthand for quantified luxury: the biggest this, most expensive that, the babest babe? The man keeps saying that he will run if he is convinced that he can win, if he thinks the votes are there. He promises to make his final decision in February. Will he be a tough sell? Not if his belief in the camouflaging effectiveness of the comb-over is any indication.
Trump made his political announcement in this, the year in which politics has finally meandered smack into the center of popular culture. Presidential impeachment as daytime soap opera. VH1 at the White House. Warren Beatty for President. A pro wrestler as governor.
The director of Trump's exploratory campaign, Roger Stone, says now is the time for a Trump candidacy because popular culture has overwhelmed the political establishment. We have more faith in the law of "The Practice" than in the law of the land. We're ready to snub career congressmen for Krusty the Klown. Who needs issues and passion and idealism when you've got money and widespread name recognition? Style over substance.
But with Trump, we've moved beyond that, to style and the complete absence of substance.
Slick, smooth and positively slimy. Trump's cool evolves into excess and then into the grotesque not because of anything he says or does--not really--but because this 727 is simply so much, so beyond what is conceivably necessary.
And yet Trump knows people love this stuff. Who wouldn't love flying from New York to Palm Beach for the weekend on their own jet with their name emblazoned on the fuselage in glistening gold letters? Slime me, baby, and tell me about your stance on health care.
Climb the stairs into the plane and enter Trump world.
It is a place where all the women are beautiful, and look to be half the age of the very wealthy men around whom they flutter.
Trump's plane can accommodate 23. (When regular sorts fly a commercial 727, it holds 119 passengers.) It's Friday evening, and this plane is ferrying a collection of 10 friends who are hitching a ride to Palm Beach the way the average soul might bum a ride to the mall with a buddy who has a spacious SUV.
Trump is the last to board and when he does, it is to great fanfare. Former senator Alfonse D'Amato dashes forward with a hug and declares himself ready to be candidate Trump's "secretary of war." And then, for the rest of the flight, D'Amato remains virtually silent, hunkered down in a dimly lit corner watching the movie "Dark Passage" as his hand makes itself at home on the knee of a slim brunette in black leather pants. She strokes his arm during the entire film.
Richard Levy, a friend of 20 years who works with Trump on commercial leasing, escorts an elegant young model who has just signed a lingerie contract. "Do you have enough business information?" he prods a reporter. Did he mention that Trump pocketed $12 million on, which deal was it? 40 Wall Street? The Hyatt? A casino? "He represents the epitome of what you can attain in America," Levy proclaims.
Yes, but Trump isn't proposing that he build the White House; he's suggesting that he should be its next resident. Thoughts on that, Dick? Bluh-bluh, blah-blah. Mmm, we get the picture. Hey, Dick, what about all the babes? Ivana, Marla, the new girl, Melania Knauss, whose entire persona is destined to be distilled into a boldface name.
They're bombshells with heart, Levy says.
Dennis Stein, retired after working with Ron Perelman for 16 years doing something he prefers to keep mysterious, is headed to Palm Beach for a wedding. "Do you want to hear a funny story about Donald? Do you want to hear a funny story?"
The plane's resident Shecky Greene begins: Trump is romancing first wife Ivana. He flies her to Aspen and rents a swanky condo for the weekend. Stein phones Trump and, using a fake German accent, tells him that the condo owner is coming to town and that he and Ivana will have to move to a room down the hall. With a Murphy bed. And no bathroom. Trump panics until Stein reveals his identity.
"Isn't that funny?" he insists. Hahahaha! Stein is pleased, explaining that he has revealed Trump to be a giddy romantic bloke. But Dennis, what do you think about this presidency thing? Stein flees to the galley to find some cookies.
The awesomely rich receive points simply for doing what is routinely expected of lesser mortals. His flight companions say that when Trump talks to you, he makes eye contact. He focuses only on you. He listens to what you have to say. He cares about his children.
He may even shake your hand, despite his often-reported aversion to handshaking.
"It's been proven you can catch colds, flus. You can probably catch lots of other things," Trump says. But he does it because, after all, grinning and gripping is part of a politician's job description.
Trump's ability to travel so conveniently, to sprawl out on a bed 30,000 feet in the air if he desires, to lavish treats and conveniences on his friends, must be intoxicating. Few could shun the friendship of a fellow who asks you if everything is all right and, if everything isn't all right, has the means to correct a host of impossible situations.
On takeoff, Trump usually prefers to sit in the cockpit with his crew of three. As the plane noses upward, the lights of Manhattan sparkle in the distance and Trump has a grand view of the city in which he owns so much. To see any town from the cockpit of your own plane inspires a certain feeling of invincibility, of a world at your doorstep. To see Manhattan from the control room of your own 727 has to do something strange and terrifying to your head.
In this overwrought world in which gray-haired men swagger about barking commands and waving giant cigars--because accepted decency prevents them from displaying their Freudian obsessions--anything seems possible. Even the presidency.
Politicians, at least, pretend to talk about issues. They may not offer nuts-and-bolts policy information, but they are happy to expound on theories, sweeping philosophies and the wonderful country that is America. But Trump quickly seems bored by his own rhetoric. Strike that. Trump has no discernible rhetoric. He seems bored by issues. Still, the attention has been nice.
"I've been very gratified by the reaction," he says. "I may not get the most votes, but I get the highest [television] ratings. . . . It's nice to know that wherever you go and whatever you do that people are watching.
"So much depends on if you happen to be talented in that medium, if you can get your point across," Trump says. "Being good on television doesn't necessarily make you a good president, but if you're not good on TV, you're not going to be president."
It's tempting to berate Trump for his impressive displays of egotism. But then, doesn't everyone who believes they have what it takes to run this country have an ego to rival Trump's? Sure, he's never been elected to anything. But neither had Elizabeth Dole, and the critics of her aborted run for the White House rarely accused her of being too egotistical. Obsessive perfectionist, yes; maniacal egotist, no. Trump's great flaw, perhaps, is that he's blunt. He's willing to admit that he enjoys the limelight and blurts out whatever crosses his mind.
"Pat Buchanan has zero chance of getting elected. He's an antisemite and he would seem to me to be a racist," Trump says. "I may be too blunt to be a politician. I don't think I'm blunt as much as honest. I think some people like it and respect it."
He connects with rappers, he says. Who needs the endorsement of the AFL-CIO when you've got Puff Daddy in your corner? Trump reports that there have been 20-some rap songs in which he is mentioned. Declining to review the oeuvres of every rapper, one is willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this statistic.
Should he run, Trump expects to draw more votes from Democrats than from Republicans. He relates to the common man, to middle-class workers.
"I don't know why. It's a group of people I respect," he says.
As the flight wears on, one looks furtively at Trump hoping for some sign of presidential decorum. Some sense of introspection, a true understanding of what it means to give oneself to the public. The search is in vain.
A man not prone to introspection, he can't really explain why he relates to the working man, to the self-made hip-hopper. The most likely reason, however, is that if the average Joe suddenly found himself swimming in dough and had no hang-ups about how he might be judged, he would indulge in the level of magnificent excess of which Trump is a master.
See my plane. It is expensive. Look at my limo. It is long. This is my girlfriend. Her legs are nearly as long as my limo. This is my house. Mmm, big.
"Wanna watch a movie?" Trump asks. Political discourse finished.
Trump owns several houses in Palm Beach. The jewel is Mar-a-Lago, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate, built in 1927. Trump bought it in 1985 and for 10 years used it as a private residence. The sprawling, Moorish ode to decadent wealth groans under the weight of antique Spanish tiles, gilded mirrors, crystal chandeliers, tuxedoed help, discreet butlers and scurrying maids. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley celebrated their marriage in the estate's landmark tower suite. This is a classy joint.
Mar-a-Lago is now a private club with about 400 members who paid $100,000 each to join. Jeans, of any kind, are never allowed. On this night, there is a celebration in the club ballroom and as guests straggle out, one is greeted by dowagers in tiaras accompanied by dapper gentlemen walkers.
The average age of the members is difficult to judge. Says one worker: Would you like that estimate based on original parts or their replacements? In high season, there is one staffer for every four guests, and while most requests run to the mundane--more ice, more alcohol--upon occasion a guest will make a particularly odd demand. One woman required a limousine to ferry her from one side of the estate to the other. The golf carts that dart around the grounds simply wouldn't do.
Upon arrival, Trump heads into the formal dining room. The girlfriend, the model in stilettos joins him. Melania Knauss, who has been a model for six years, is a delicate woman with straight brunet hair and almond-shaped eyes that always seem to be crinkled in delight. Quite possibly, they twinkle. And thanks to a fitted black lace slip dress, her magnificent bosom--not large, but very, very erect--is on display from the main course to the marionberry cobbler.
Knauss has spent the day working on a swimsuit shoot for Tatler magazine with fashion photographer Arthur Elgort. She has been leaping and running and swimming all day and has apparently made quite an impression on the men of Mar-a-Lago, as several point out that she was doing a very good job wearing her bikini.
The recent appearance of Knauss and her spectacular legs on the "Today" show also prompts compliments from a gentleman with an accent of unknown origin and hair coated with unspeakable amounts of gel.
Knauss, who grew up in Slovenia, met Trump at a party. He asked for her number; she refused, but accepted his and later called him. At first she was simply another Trump treat, transformed from a mere model into a supermodel once she began to dangle from his arm. Now she, the one Trump calls "baby," is a possible first lady if he decides to go through with a presidential campaign. "I think America need a new leader. It's good. It's a good idea. You need someone who is, mmm, talk straight and not--" And Knauss wiggles her hand around in imitation of a slithering snake. It's the blunt thing all over again.
Throughout the meal, other diners wander over to pay homage to Trump. The level of sucking up is extreme and even Trump seems a bit uneasy. A little girl comes over to thank "Mr. Trump for dinner," and one can't help but feel queasy that she has been dispatched by the well-tanned adults at her table to do their brown-nosing for them.
When Knauss finally is alone--as Trump excuses himself to say hello to other diners--we prod. What is Trump really like? The subtext, of course, is how does he always seem to get the girl? Money can't carry on a dinner conversation. A billion dollars can't hit that G-spot. Knauss flashes a look of befuddlement as if her entire grasp of the English language had evaporated like a cloud of perfume.
Cocktail Party Politics
What's the point of all this? Could it be that Trump, 53, genuinely wants to be president? You look him up and down. You feel no guilt because this is a man who notices the physical, who revels in beauty, who worries about his own appearance. Two years after the fact, he still frets about a published photograph of himself that made him look a bit chubby. "I looked like I weighed 500 pounds!" He shuns a wide-angle lens the way other politicians avoid a pop quiz on foreign policy.
You zero in on the packaging with which Trump is so concerned: the pouty lower lip, the forehead with its brooding furrow, the smooth rosy cheeks. And there is the hair, a thin sheath of perfectly placed strands.
Yet this is not the face of determination or political passion, but rather lukewarm interest. He has written an editorial about his anti-Castro position. His Web site touts his 14.25 percent tax on the wealthy. He's pro-choice. Pro-health care. Pro-Social Security. Pro-living long and prospering. Trump is a cocktail party politician, a man with an opinion that has been liberated by the intoxication of money instead of gin.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company