All right then, let’s do this. If we have to talk about Donald Trump, because apparently the subject will not just go awayon its own, then let’s talk about him, even if it means going back on a vow I made 16 years ago.
This was back in 1999, just like the Prince song, when I was a junior political correspondent at Newsweek, and Trump was pretending to run for president for the very first time. His venue then was a complete train wreck called the Reform Party, which for a brief moment believe it or not, was a pretty big deal in American politics, but was at that moment ripping itself in half.
Founded by Ross Perot in 1995, Reform was then led, nominally, by the wrestler-turned-Minnesota-governor Jesse Ventura, a populist libertarian with whom I spent an inordinate amount of time in those days. But Pat Buchanan, the disenchanted social conservative, had decided to stage a hostile takeover so he could use the party’s ballot line to run for president again — an eventuality Ventura was so determined to stop that he would have gladly thrown his support behind any half-wit degenerate who came through the door with some cash and a plausible resume.
And in walked Donald Trump.
He said he was serious about running, anyway, and he invited me to Manhattan, where I got the private tour of his penthouse in Trump Tower, with the marble walls and the faux Greek statues and the massive scale model of his looming residential towers, overlooking unobstructed views of his looming residential towers. You know, pretty much the kind of decor you or I would choose, if we had a limitless budget and no discernible taste and a yawing hole in the part of our psyche that parental love might normally fill.
We rode in Trump’s stretch limo with his then girlfriend, the supermodel Melania Knauss. (She was lovely.) We attended a dinner where I sat with Alex Baldwin and a former Miss Universe. (She was lovely.) About two hundred times, Trump pointed out all the ordinary New Yorkers who called his name as they passed and pointed out how much they adored him. He beamed for every camera in the zip code.
It was, in short, a garish spectacle, and none of it seemed to have very much to do with running for anything other than more attention, and I wrote what any normal person would have considered a biting, dismissive account of the whole charade. (This included the odd fact that Trump steadfastly refused to engage in handshakes, though perhaps he’s gotten over that.)
After the story came out, I got a call on my foot-long cell phone as I was walking down the street.
It was Trump. I braced myself.
“You’re an unbelievable writer!” Trump shouted. “That was a great piece!”
That call, and the realization that came with it, kicked me in the stomach, because I realized Trump had gotten from me exactly what he came for. I promised myself I would never again let myself be used for brand promotion masquerading as politics, which I considered then — and consider now — to be a very serious business.
But you know, when your entire industry is happily allowing itself to be used, I guess you have to acknowledge the orange-haired elephant in the room.
Oh yes, I know, Trump is a legitimate obsession because he is the “Republican front-runner.” Look at the polls. Only an arrogant elitist would avoid covering everything the front-runner says and does just because you think him insufficiently qualified.