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My Evening with the Donald

Are we ready for a man who likes palaces and pre-nups?

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

October 11, 1999
Web posted at: 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT)

I could be married in 24 hours," insists twice-divorced would-be presidential candidate Donald Trump, as if the all-night convenience store had brides on Aisle 3 for the politician who finds he's running low on family values. He twists the gooseneck lamp in the back of his limousine to shine it on his companion, Melania Knauss, a model just back from a photo shoot for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's swimsuit issue. "Is this the next First Lady of the United States or what?" he asks. She beams under the tiny spotlight, showing teeth like a prize filly at the state fair.

Well, perhaps. At a time when a wrestler who looks down on organized religion but dreams of being reincarnated as a piece of lingerie can become a Governor, it's not totally outlandish for an Elle Macpherson clone to be measuring drapery for the East Wing.

I have come to New York to see if Trump, the umpteenth person to form a presidential exploratory committee this year, is as big a jerk as he sometimes seems to be. Not that being a jerk automatically disqualifies a person from becoming a candidate these days: anyone with airfare and a website can jump in. But he's the first real estate developer with a skyscraper-size ego to run, a man famous for prompting Marla Maples' tabloid headline BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD, and for refusing to shake hands for fear of germs. As he shakes mine, I ask him if he's got over this phobia. "I don't mind shaking the hand of a beautiful woman," he croons. "It's worth the risk."

With an answer like that, how big a jerk can he be? But what about the vision thing? Every candidate needs one. He's for tax cuts, against affirmative action and pro-choice; he fears that if we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns and thinks campaign finance is a complicated issue but simple enough for him. He can afford to think that. "I'm prepared to spend what it takes, $20 million to $40 million," he declares, "and then I won't be beholden to anyone." Does he really have the cash, having gone neck deep into debt in the early '90s? "I could be very liquid very quickly, and I wouldn't have to sell a thing." Take that, Steve Forbes.

But who is going to vote for the king of broads and blackjack, pre-nups and palaces in a year when the public is looking for a grownup as an antidote to Bill Clinton? "All my construction guys love me. The guy who picks up the bus at the Port Authority, gets $50 in chips and a ticket for the all-you-can-eat buffet and takes the missus to the Trump Taj Mahal, he loves me," says Trump. He takes further comfort in a National Enquirer poll that shows him at the front of the pack.

He boasts that he already owns the southern White House, which means he won't be mooching off rich friends on Martha's Vineyard. "I bought Mar-a-Lago [a Palm Beach, Fla., estate], which Marjorie Merriweather Post willed to the government to be used by Presidents," he says. He brags he paid only $8 million, a steal at the time.

But if Trump's prepared with the real estate, he's less prepared with the foreign policy. He may have to pull as many all-nighters as Republican front runner George W. Bush. Trump does know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, but some of his writing reminds one a bit of the hawkish general played by George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove. "I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms that it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Muammar Gaddafi in 1986," he wrote two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal. Bombs away! No, he demurs in an interview. He just wants to "negotiate from strength. The U.S. shouldn't be powerless against a madman." As for Castro, Trump wrote that the Cuban leader should be tried for crimes against humanity as "the most abnormal political figure in our hemisphere." Hmmm. Isn't a politician who doesn't shake hands a little abnormal too? Trump says he's working on that.

Over Labor Day weekend, the Reform Party's highest public-office holder and a kingmaker, Minnesota's Jesse Ventura, tracked Trump down in Las Vegas and encouraged him to run, telling him Trump could draw from the same disaffected groups as Ventura did. The two stayed in touch, and last week Ventura called to say he could come to New York. Trump said, "Come to dinner at my place [the four-star Jean Georges at the Trump International Hotel]. I'll bring Melania." Ventura said, "Great. I'll bring Woody Harrelson."

To each his own. Trump scoffs at the usual reasons for launching a third-party bid. He says he's not just looking to get his hands on the party's $13 million in federal matching funds or to have a podium at the debates or to gain spoiler status. "I'm not running for some measly 22%. I will only do this if I can win."

There's a mob scene outside the restaurant, but there's quiet elegance inside, if you ignore the beefy bodyguards. Trump's putative First Lady is so nervous around the Reform Party kingmaker that she knocks over the crystal. But no one minds. It looks like a party made in heaven.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 18, 1999

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