Too blurry-eyed with Trump fatigue to stomach another Donald piece?
Yeah, it’s unending. And confusing. Trump has managed to turn the media world upside down. Establishment voices like Maureen Dowd in The New York Times write columns that go easy on the bombastic and baldly misogynist billionaire, while Megyn Kelly, the Venus fly trap of Fox News, catches him like a bug and makes him bleed.
But knowing the real Trump could be important. While lots of Republicans would like to dismiss him as a gaudy sideshow whose run won’t last until the Republican National Convention in July 2016, his candidacy may have more staying power than a pack of pundits first thought. At least Warren Buffett thinks so.
So what to make of the man behind this enormously entertaining political reality show? Is he a shamelessly self-obsessed, self-promoter without a shred of principle and without a trace of class? Or is he a truth-telling American original who spews contempt for the political correctness that makes so many of us drowsy with banal politics-as-usual?
Without malice, name-calling, or demeaning physical characterizations, here are three anecdotes about the mogul-who-would-be-president that you haven’t heard before. Depending on your point of view, they may or may not be revealing. But they will help you take your own measure of the man.
Story One: In the early 1990s, when I was working at BusinessWeek, we ran stories about Trump’s financial woes that suggested his wealth was a lot of smoke and mirrors. One story especially angered him, and a fuming Donald stormed into our offices on Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan and spent hours ranting at the reporter/writer, the senior editor, the editor in chief, and the general counsel for McGraw-Hill, which then owned the magazine.
Here’s what the writer, Larry Light, recalls in an email:
“Essentially, what happened was Donald finally blew his stack when I published a story about his latest attempt to get out of the hole. Before, he had ignored my other stuff about him. This time, the story focused on his investment in something called the Hotel New Japan in Tokyo, which had burned down under suspicious circumstances. Nobody suggested he had anything to do with the fire. My point was simply that the guy was trying anything. As our stories had demonstrated, he was on the ropes financially. (I knew he’d eventually come back: He was too big to fail—and say what you want, Trump is a good businessman.)
“Anyway, I got a phone call from him saying: ‘I’m gonna sue your ass off.’
“A few days later, he charged into the office of [Editor in Chief Stephen Shepard] with lawyers. I was there, along with Senior Editor Deidre Depke, Steve, and Ken Vittor, corporate counsel for McGraw-Hill.
“Trump launched into a three-hour diatribe about how rich he really was and how I was jealous of him.
“[In regards to his finances], I told him: ‘You don’t have it, Donald.’ I had access to his financials (I can’t say how), so I knew I was on solid ground. At the time, he had a negative net worth.
“I also said I wasn’t jealous of him and viewed him as a subject of news interest only.
“Then he took exception to my reference to his ‘tacky image.’ To show he was a man of station in society, he said he had just been admitted to some WASP-y club. I don’t remember the name. ‘Larry Light couldn’t get in there,’ he said, emphasizing my name.
Was this an implication I was Jewish? Or just not a high society type? Probably the latter. I am not Jewish, for one thing. But I am a WASP. So I said: ‘I dunno, Donald. I’m an Episcopalian.’ That was the line that went around the floor of BusinessWeek.”
[Another participant in the meeting remembers thinking that Trump’s remark was less subtly anti-Semitic; that he had assumed Light was Jewish and that what he meant about Light not being a candidate for the club was that Light’s religion would preclude him from consideration.]
“Finally, Ken Vittor, our lawyer, said to Trump: ‘Donald, you can sue us if you want. But realize that we will have the power of discovery. And the whole world will know what your finances are.’
“Trump had drawn up legal papers but had never filed them. After Ken’s comment and seeing we weren’t going to be cowed, Trump left and the lawsuit somehow never saw the light of day.”
All that was a long time ago, to be sure, though there are familiar components to the story, especially the braggadocio and the attempt to intimidate a journalist. Was Trump’s reaction simply that of an aggrieved and righteous investor or the lashing out of a bully willing to say and suggest anything when called out?
Story Two: Trump has rightly railed against the fast-and-loose business behavior of the United States’ economic rival, China, a travesty in which Corporate America has unpatriotically colluded. In 2011, he said: “China is doing great. China is now the No. 1 producer in the world of wind and solar power. They now possess the fastest supercomputer on the entire globe. China also now has the world’s fastest train and the world’s biggest high-speed rail network. Most Americans don’t realize that China is literally kicking the crap out of us.”
But Hong Kong Chinese money helped bankroll the building of a string of glitzy high-rise apartments that run along the Hudson on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and carry the Trump name in gold letters.
In the mid-1990s, I happened to be living in a first-floor apartment of a landmark building on 72nd Street that looked out on the rail sidings and empty lots where the Trump buildings would be built, the last undeveloped stretch of Manhattan, then known as Penn Yards. [Full disclosure: One of those buildings later completely obliterated my view of the Hudson and all light on one side of my former apartment.]
At that time, the far west end of 72nd Street was a virtual cul-de-sac because the entrance to the West Side Highway had been temporarily blocked off. One morning, I peered out my front windows, which looked out on the cul-de-sac and Riverside Park, to see a limousine pull up. A chauffeur opened the passenger door and out emerged Donald Trump and a squat, powerfully built Asian man.
Trump spent 15 or 20 minutes talking and gesturing expansively toward the lots where the buildings would later go up with the swiftness of a Potemkin village. To a nosy observer, he appeared to be trying to sell the Asian man on something.
A 1994 story in the Times about the project, then referred to as Riverside South, said this: For the Cheng family, which owns one of Hong Kong’s biggest real estate and development conglomerates “…Donald J. Trump was not a rival but merely a target of opportunity. Mr. Trump first sketched out the plan for developing the 75-acre site along the Hudson River, blocks from Lincoln Center, but his recent financial problems allowed the Hong Kong group to buy his $250 million debt on the land for a bargain price of some $90 million and take over Riverside South.
Construction could start within a year, and Mr. Trump will share in the profits. But people familiar with the Chengs’ operations agree that they, not Mr. Trump call the shots.”
So does the fact that Trump was a front man for Chinese money, which underwrote the enormous project, make his later criticism of China disingenuous?
Story Three: About 15 years ago, I had occasion to consult with a fancy Upper East Side dental surgeon who specialized in cosmetic work. The circumstances are unimportant, though he did notice that I was getting older and might want to consider implants or veneers since he said I had made my teeth considerably smaller over the years by grinding them. An occupational hazard, I guess.
The dentist was momentarily called away, and when he returned to the conference room where I waited, he had a set of teeth molds in his hand.
“Do you know what these are?” he asked with a smirk. Then, without waiting for an answer, added: “Donald Trump’s teeth.”
The dentist said Trump would come to the office every six months or so complaining that his veneers weren’t white enough.
“I tell him that if they are too white, they won’t look real,” the dentist said, as I recall, “but he won’t listen. So he picks a shade, and I make them about one-quarter as white as the shade he selects, and he goes away happy.”
I took his story with a scrape of plaque since he seemed a bit of a salesman himself. But as he walked me down the hall, he motioned with his eyes to an examining room. The door was open and I could see the back of a famous head of hair in the dentist’s chair.
So what’s the takeaway? Self-absorption of the highest order or just a celebrity who likes to look his gleaming best?
Again, your call.