My Evening with the Donald
Are we ready for a man who likes palaces and pre-nups?
By Margaret Carlson
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
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,
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
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.
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Cover Date: October 18, 1999