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The Donald Erases Line Between Politics, Comedy

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s what it’s like in the office suite of Donald Trump, this eclectic country’s latest would-be leader: ABC’s Diane Sawyer is cooling her pumps in a conference room; a leggy receptionist with a thick Russian accent is fielding calls from “60 Minutes” and two Los Angeles radio stations; men in double-breasted suits are cruising out for lunch. All the while The Donald, a billionaire who comes across like some aging Rat Packer, is swiveling in his red velvet chair, 26 floors above Manhattan, dreaming about running the free world.

If every presidential campaign needs a good narrative with plenty of comic relief, then the White House quest of Trump, the real estate-casino developer, may just be it. His Donald J. Trump Presidential Exploratory Committee is Political Science 101 on how far politics is devolving into pure entertainment.

Currently, he’s musing about going for the Reform Party nomination. He spouts tax-the-rich ideas and sounds like your very own rich uncle talking at Thanksgiving dinner about how politics is broken and America needs a businessman like him to make things right.

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Still, nobody seems to know what this 53-year-old wheeler-dealer with the orange-fizz hair is really up to. And it’s hard to get a straight answer out of him.

The media can’t get enough of him and clearly he’s addicted to the attention.

“I got a call from one of the biggest politicians in New York,” he says during a half-hour interview. “He couldn’t believe he was watching CNN for a whole hour and they kept announcing ‘Donald Trump and the other presidential candidates coming up at 7 o'clock.’

“They use me to announce they’re going to discuss presidential politics,” he brags before conceding that “whether or not TV ratings can transfer into votes is a very interesting question.”

Even Trump seems baffled as to why a guy with no experience in politics (except for lavishing a lot of elected officials with campaign contributions) has already made the media rounds.

He’s been on the cover of Newsweek and turned an editorial board meeting at the New York Times into a giant kibitz session that left writers roaring with laughter over his travails with ex-wives Marla and Ivana. He’s talked taxes with CNN’s Larry King. He talked sex on national radio with Howard Stern. On this day, he’s doing “Good Morning America;” tomorrow he may do “Today.” Today he’s on for “Tonight.”

Trump brings his big top to Los Angeles to tape the show with Jay Leno today. But he’s not on the ordinary political circuit. You won’t find this cool dude with a model for arm candy eating chicken at the Rotary Club. After the taping, he’ll provide canapes and cocktails at L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills to California leaders of the Reform Party, which was founded by another rich man with an itch to run things.

Trump, with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s blessings, is thinking about taking over the party that once belonged to Ross Perot by using $100 million of his own cash in hopes of winning its nomination in July. He’s already listed on the California primary ballot as the Reform candidate.

But he has no political “strategy” to speak of, in California or elsewhere.

“The only strategy is, I’ll be on television a lot. I’ll be expressing my views. I’ll be explaining that I don’t want foreign countries to rip off the United States, like they have been doing in the past,” he says.

He certainly won’t be setting foot on such old-technology campaign grounds as Iowa or New Hampshire. Rather, Trump is measuring his success by online polls, which he says show him in a dead heat with conservative Patrick J. Buchanan, the other early contender for the faction-torn Reform Party.

Trump and his advisor, Roger Stone, a corporate and political consultant who used to work with Republicans, dismiss scientific polls like the one conducted by the Los Angeles Times in which probable Reform Party voters ranked him dead last. Trump was preferred by 14% of such voters, while Buchanan got the nod from 30%; Perot, 25%; and Ventura, 20%.

“My polls, the ones I know, have been strong,” Trump insists after hearing The Times numbers.

Trump puts more stock in his popularity with TV viewers, and he’s all pumped up after Diane Sawyer informs him that their interview will be aired in two segments on successive days.

“Why are people watching me when they don’t watch other people on television?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically. “Maybe they want to hear what I’m saying. Maybe they agree with what I’m saying. Maybe they like me?”

Or maybe it’s because Trump is just plain entertaining, a charming, blunt-talking P.T. Barnum who favors hyperbole. (“I’m the biggest, my buildings are the best, the tallest, the most successful . . . ,” etc.)

If that’s the case, he says, “then I’m doing a lot of good for the television networks, but I’m not doing good for myself.”

His refreshing candor and exhilarating coarseness do make good TV. But shouldn’t there be more behind a man running for president? asks Neal Gabler, author of a new book about the power of entertainment to subjugate everything in American society.

“A Donald, a Jesse Ventura, play to this idea that politics is just another form of entertainment, and the spoils go to the individual who puts on the best show,” Gabler says.

All candidates must have “a good ego and good narrative and be able to sell it all to be successful in governing,” Gabler concedes, but some offer nothing but ego.

If Trump wins the Reform nomination, he stands to get $12.5 million from the taxpayers--chump change for a guy who bought the Empire State Building. Clearly, it isn’t federal matching funds he’s after.

Which again comes back to the question: What is he after?

Nontraditional candidates most often run to promote an idea: Steve Forbes wants a flat tax; the Natural Law Party candidate promotes preventive health care. Trump’s critics think he’s promoting himself and that this White House bid is just another thing to put his name on.

Or is he seeking free publicity to get more people into his four casinos in New Jersey? Promoting his fourth book, which is about to come out? Pushing his profitable brand name?

A powerful Trump friend who doesn’t want to be named says, “You’ve got to give Donald credit for knowing how to promote, doing it with a veiled sense of humor and using it to help his business.”

After all, $100 million for a year’s worth of advertising is nothing for a Fortune 500 company.

While acknowledging that the media are giving him a free ride, Trump suggests that it’s the media who are using him and not the other way around.

“Look,” he says, “they only want me for one reason: ratings.”

Trump, on the other hand, is “taking this very seriously,” he says. “There’s a group out there that thinks I’m having a good time doing it and it’s just because I’m having a good time that I’m doing it--and I am having a good time. . . . For me it’s been fun. For other people it’s work.”

Like Vice President Al Gore, publisher Steve Forbes and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Donald Trump built his mega-success on his father’s shoulders. The late Fred Trump created a rental-apartment empire in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and Donald came across the bridge to Manhattan in the 1970s to make his own deals.

With political friends in City Hall and in Albany, he managed to buy and sell many Manhattan properties, including valuable landmarks. He also developed some of the biggest properties in the city.

But his personal life and fortune went into a tailspin in the early ‘90s as New York property values dropped. He and wife Ivana, mother of his three children, divorced and he married Marla Maples, the model known as the “Georgia Peach,” and set off a tabloid frenzy. They have since split. The banks threatened to take all his assets. His plan to build a 125-story skyscraper--which would have been the nation’s tallest--on the site of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles fizzled.

But he came back with a series of clever deals and by maneuvering deftly through the gambling world that rules Atlantic City. Now he is in many partnerships that own new landmarks and are constructing even taller buildings.

“You think Bush could have made billions of dollars in profits off a real estate business and other businesses in New York? You think Gore could have? You think [Bill] Bradley could have? If they were put in my business, I don’t think they could have succeeded.”

But he has no qualms about going into their business.

“I know I can do it,” he says.

He says he’ll decide by early February whether to put up or shut up. He won’t get into the race if he would be just a spoiler.

“I wouldn’t feel good about that,” he says. “I want to know in my heart I can win, I can take it all.”

Recently, he wrote the Commission on Presidential Debates asking about the criteria for participating in debates. In true Trump form, he included a veiled threat of litigation if he’s turned down.

“Well,” he says, “you know there’s an expression: ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.’ Well, I don’t know if that’s necessarily so, but I can say New York is rough and tumble. And, you know, who has made it bigger than me in New York?”


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