An Essayby Bill Barich
Now that the Republicans have convened and we must accept the reality of Donald Trump as their nominee, I find myself thinking about the brief time I spent in his orbit almost thirty years ago and what it taught me about how he operates. At the time, Trump was trying to move beyond his identity as a real estate developer and establish himself in the public mind as something loftier, a celebrity. To that end, he’d set up as the casino king of Atlantic City and had just spent eleven million dollars to promote a heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks, which I decided to cover for The New Yorker. Trump, ever conscious of brands, recognized the magazine’s cachet and publicity value and granted me an audience at Trump Tower in Manhattan before the action moved to New Jersey.
I’d like to say I attended the meeting with an open mind, but I had preconceived ideas. I thought Trump was a bit of a buffoon, not necessarily hard-hearted but unable to rise much above the mosh pit of the building industry, and certainly not a man with whom I’d be discussing great literature. He did not strike me as cultured, but I did believe he was smart and canny. “Trump understands Americans,” I wrote in my piece, “and shares their passion for statistics, for size and volume, for sheer mass in preference to anything abstract or foreign,” and as I watched him oversee preparations for the fight at the Atlantic City Convention Center, I noted, “He chatted with the technicians, shook a hand here, a hand there—he had the common touch, and I could imagine him in politics someday.” One of my more prescient moments.
I arrived at Trump’s Midtown headquarters in a state of mild anxiety. I felt what many writers must feel when their work leads them somewhere unexpected and, in this case, exceedingly unlikely—that I’d made a wrong turn along the way. But I did my best to pose as what I assumed Trump might be anticipating, a mild-mannered Ivy League specimen who belonged to the right clubs and played a mean game of squash, none of which was true of me. His staff greeted me warmly, and that came as a shock. In my few forays into the corporate world as a reporter, I’d often been treated like someone who’d snuck in through the back door and ought to exit through it as soon as possible. I counted on being made to wait, and I almost always was, but at Trump Tower I was ushered to a comfortable chair and promptly served coffee, after which a woman I assumed was Trump’s PA sat with me and chatted amiably.
That lent a clue to Trump’s character. He might appear buffoonish and even cartoonish, but he had the sense to surround himself with extremely competent individuals who made him look good and put a positive spin on his brand. His outer office had a pleasant, collegial atmosphere that implied the employees believed they were all in it together, devoted to the cause, whatever it might be. They gave off the vibrant glow of workers who are well taken care of and don’t labor in vain. In spite of the multimillion-dollar deals no doubt under review, no one acted harried or pushed, at least while I was around. Instead, a kind of serenity seemed to govern Trump’s inner sanctum.
Right on time, I was delivered to his quarters. Needless to say, he owned a spectacular view of a significant portion of Manhattan Island. He was bigger than he appeared in photos, not so much muscular but with a certain heft and solidity he probably brought to bear on his adversaries when trying to close a deal. His was the build of a weekend golfer, a former college athlete who’s still sort of in shape and can carry ten extra pounds without serious remorse. His handshake was firm, although I took no notice of the size of the hand extended, my ability to interpret such things not nearly so well-developed as Marco Rubio’s. Trump’s hair was already the wispy, cotton-candyish confection it is now, but the color was still natural and it didn’t require an elaborate comb-over to hide any bald spots. He might’ve been influenced by the old teen beach movies set in California as viewed through the eyes of a kid from Queens. Tab Hunter could well have been Trump’s stylist.
I sat across from Trump at his desk in close quarters. I was surprised at how relaxed he was. There was no pulling of rank, no attempt to brag or show off. He seemed comfortable in his own skin. I realized the situation must be just as weird for him as it was for me. How often did he spend thirty nonproductive minutes with a writer, especially one not hired to tell his life story? He appeared to be genuinely interested in what I wrote, the books and so on. He had the kind of packrat sensibility I’d observed before in actors, who conduct a course of self-education not by reading but by listening to the many intriguing folks they meet and latching onto the choice ideas and information. In his manner, Trump reminded me of the guys I grew up with and played ball with on Long Island, devoted fans of pranks and fart jokes, loyal, conservative, happy with a slice of pizza and a beer, although the Donald abstains. He liked a laugh. We could’ve been hanging out on a corner by a drugstore. I could easily picture him giving me a friendly elbow in the ribs after we thumbed our noses at Officer Krupke.
We talked about the fight, of course. For Trump it wasn’t only a business undertaking and publicity machine. He had an honest interest in the outcome and a feel for the sport of boxing, which must’ve appealed to his pugnacious nature, and he expressed concern that Michael Spinks wouldn’t be able to handle Tyson. He was looking forward to the big party he was throwing at the Trump Plaza casino before the bout, a star-studded affair of exactly the type a wealthy, aspiring celebrity might be predicted to host. He would make sure I was invited, and I thanked him, already cringing at the prospect of mingling where I didn’t belong. But there’d be plenty of champagne, a consoling thought. Soon my thirty minutes were up, and I came away thinking Trump wasn’t a bad guy at all, or at least not as bad as he was in my most virulent fantasies, and that was probably the precise impression he hoped to create, being faster on the draw than I. Never in our time together did I see the dark, fear-mongering side he now so readily displays.
HBO had bought the TV rights to the fight, and its executives were as eager as Trump to receive The New Yorker imprimatur, so they put me up in an expensive but very cheesy apartment in Atlantic City, furnished à la mode for a tapped-out gambler in need of a well-stocked wet bar and a hooker to revive his spirits. A fit of claustrophobia began to grip me, and I set out to walk it off and headed away from the casinos and into an outlying neighborhood of shockingly rundown bungalows and tenements, dumbstruck by the literal fact of such poverty existing less than a half mile from the opulence, however tacky, of the strip. I stopped in a couple of taverns, the word being accurate for these dated joints, one of which belonged to a Gold Star Mother who’d lost her son in World War II, and got an earful about Donald Trump, who was widely considered to be a liar and a scoundrel for boasting about all the benefits his casinos would bring to the locals, none of which had materialized.
Here was another example of Trump’s modus operandi, which was to sell the sizzle and not the steak. He’d promised the community new jobs along with an influx of new revenue, but in truth his casinos were failing almost from the start, propped up in part by loans from his father, Fred, who had saved his son’s butt more than once when Donald’s supposed acumen had proved faulty. That wasn’t to say Trump hadn’t made some good decisions and earned some deserved success on his own, only to suggest that if you bought into his self-inflating bullshit you might also buy into the notion of genius he was striving so hard to promote. For Trump, bullshit was the lingua franca of all his endeavors, a strategy he deemed harmless, although it didn’t seem that way when you sat in the Gold Star Mother’s tavern and heard the weary, worked-over boozers carry on about how he’d deceived them into believing he was the risen messiah who’d breathe new life into decrepit Atlantic City.
Another aspect of Trump’s character was revealed to me that same afternoon when I visited the Convention Center to check out the prefight goings-on. Some carpenters were busy rearranging boards to increase the seating capacity to twenty-two thousand, and TV correspondents from several different countries—Paraguay, Gabon, the Cayman Islands—were filming video footage of themselves standing by the ring and waxing heroic about the epic battle soon to be waged. Into the midst of all the activity walked Donald Trump. He hadn’t been expected, that much was clear. Everyone froze, the sound of hammers died. As opposed to his relaxed behavior at Trump Tower, Trump’s bearing was military. He held himself stiffly, a man with a purpose. He and an aide strode to a ringside arena cordoned off and labeled the VIP Corral, where Trump sat in a folding chair and craned his neck as if to peer around an obstacle.
“Frank won’t be able to see,” he complained to the aide.
Frank was Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board and the kingpin in any casino town on earth. Trump’s people had been in contact with Frank’s people, there had been an exchange of quid pro quos and an offer of a ringside ticket, and although it was uncertain as yet if the deal would finally be sealed, Trump was taking no chances. With Sinatra being on the short side of life, he’d have a piss-poor view of the fight from his seat, a legs-and-thighs-only view, because the ring was too high. That was an offense Trump, with his adoration of celebrity and his nose for sniffing out the real power in the room, couldn’t risk, so he did the sensible thing and ordered the ring to be lowered, damn the cost or the inconvenience to the HBO crew who’d spent all day positioning eleven cameras and would now have to reposition them. This was the mythic Donald Trump in action, the Trump of forceful land grabs, who never encountered an opportune moment he was reluctant to seize.
I turned up at his big shindig at Trump Plaza in a limo with HBO’s PR man, his gorgeous girlfriend, and with Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner. Billy Crystal wanted no part of me, wouldn’t swap a word, his easygoing, nice-guy persona obviously whipped up for the stage. Instead he acted like a snotty kid avoiding the unwashed, while Reiner seemed too preoccupied with the girlfriend’s anatomy to notice me at all. At the casino, we took part in a scene from Day of the Locust when the autograph seekers who actually carried autograph books in that distant, pre-selfie era descended on Crystal and threatened to tear him apart, grabbing at his arms to yank him this way and that. Indeed, his bleaching bones might still be resting there on the pavement, a draw for misanthropic tourists and Hollywood haters, if a security dude hadn’t waded in and hustled us all up a back staircase to the party before the crowd could finish their work.
Celebrities were everywhere. Jack Nicholson, Norman Mailer, Robert Parrish of the Boston Celtics: the list went on, and so did the Dom Perignon. Unbelievably, the celebrities were asked by a Trump aide to sign a leather-bound guestbook marked “Celebrities.” I was not asked to sign, but I did talk hoops with Parrish and with Clifford Ray, who was then with the Golden State Warriors, and kept my eye on the Donald, who was circulating, as they say, and looking a tad uncomfortable in a casual sport coat and golf slacks I felt certain his wife, Ivana, had chosen for him. If he’d been at ease in the office and authoritarian about the ring situation, he seemed out of his element now, starstruck by his proximity to so much celebrity power, a kid from Queens with faux Tab Hunter hair, although inwardly he was no doubt smug about pulling it off, the famous faces and bodies in attendance a confirmation of his own rising star. If anyone had asked Trump to borrow his private jet for a few hours to see what Atlantic City looked like from South Dakota, he’d have said sure, by all means, do you need any money for gas? But all wasn’t folly. He was building up contacts and a network, learning where the power brokers were and how best he could use them.
The fight was an anticlimax. Tyson destroyed Spinks in ninety-one seconds, and Frank Sinatra didn’t show. As for Trump, his moment in the spotlight had passed. He could be a peacock at the party, but at the Atlantic City Convention Center the crowd, unruly before the first punch and ornery after the last, feeling bilked and ragging on about what a corrupt sport boxing was and how they’d never fork over the big bucks for a ticket again although of course they knew that they would, the Donald simply disappeared. No matter, the outing was another winner for him. He might eventually limp out of the casino game with his tail between his legs, leaving Atlantic City to crumble again, but on the night of the Tyson fight the drop at Trump Plaza increased by twenty million dollars, not to mention his cut of the ticket sales and whatever ancillary rewards he reaped. With the judicious application of bullshit, he could add it to his portfolio of faux triumphs, building up his profile as a master of the universe that would blossom into full flower at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016.