Riding The Wave With The Donald

So this is what it's like to be Donald Trump. As soon as the master builder and would-be president bolts from his limo into Manhattan's theater district, necks are craning, voices are calling, flashbulbs are flaring. "Hey, Mr. Trump, enjoyed seeing you on TV last night!" "Hey Donald, good luck; we love you!" Does he pay these people to fawn over him in public? "Yeah, right," Trump says, then pauses thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea, though." Now a mike is in his face: does he think Michael Jackson is a good father? "They ask me everything," Trump shrugs, not displeased. Inside, at a charity event hosted by the Hollywood Baldwins, tabloid reporters greet The Donald and his girlfriend, supermodel Melania Knauss, with kisses. Scores of photographers body-check each other behind a scarlet rope line. Trump poses and mutters through his smile, "Can you believe this?"

Not really, no. Most serious-minded people think Trump's flirtation with the Reform Party's presidential nomination is just a publicity stunt. The developer insists he set up an exploratory committee last week because he's seriously considering a run. But he admits that all the hype--he made the front page of both New York tabloids--isn't exactly bad for business. "It's been unbelievable," Trump says. "My sales office on First Avenue was swamped with people wanting to buy an apartment because of all this. My book will do very well. My casinos are packed. I wouldn't do it for that reason, but I guess the publicity is having an impact." And why not? In an age when candidates use huge sums of cash to control the political process, maybe it was only a matter of time before someone tried using the process to make huge sums of cash. Or maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump really does want to lead the free world.

He certainly can be a player in 2000. Trump has no real political platform to speak of; he describes himself vaguely as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But the developer does have--to use one of his favorite words--"amazing" resources. His casino database is said to hold the detailed profiles of more than 6 million potential voters. He has a billion bucks, at least on paper. And name recognition is not a problem. Among his monuments in New York: Trump Palace, Trump Place, Trump International Plaza, Trump International Hotel and Tower, Trump Tower and, soon enough, Trump World Tower, the tallest residential building in the city. "I don't think of myself as having an ego," Trump says. He's serious.

Freud could have written volumes about the buildings that Trump calls his "high, spectacular glass towers." The Donald himself lives in Trump Tower in a three-story apartment that is--to use another of his favorite words--"unbelievable." It has onyx walls and mirrored columns, with crystal chandeliers and faux classical murals on the ceilings. Two limestone Greek statues guard the entrance. "It was more difficult to build this apartment than it was the entire building," Trump says, gazing down on the length of Fifth Avenue. "I can stand here and see a lot of my buildings." Trump's favorite book, by the way, is "The Art of the Deal," by "a brilliant author named Donald Trump." Who else does Trump admire? "Admire is a big word," he says. "I have great respect for many people. I'd rather not say who, because so many people will feel left out."

Trump already lives like a president. There's the 727 jet, the Sikorsky helicopter and round-the-clock security and servants, along with the old Rockefeller estate in upstate New York and a retreat in Palm Beach. ("I'm tired of Aspen," he tells a friend. "Aspen's over.") But it's hard to imagine Trump fulfilled in Washington, where they won't let you build anything taller than the Capitol dome. And Trump is averse to handshakes, which presidents--not to mention candidates--can scarcely avoid. "It's a barbaric custom," he says. "I see people coming out of the bathroom, and they want to shake my hand."

If he is serious, Trump will probably have to beat out Pat Buchanan for the Reform nomination. The party, to put it bluntly, is a mess. So far, Trump seems to have the support of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who dined with Trump at a swank New York restaurant last week. Ventura wants someone--anyone, perhaps--who can hold off Buchanan. But some of Ventura's key aides are skeptical of Trump and have been urging the governor to withhold his blessing. They'd rather see Ventura leave the party altogether if Buchanan looks like the nominee.

Either way, Trump should emerge from this odd moment with even more money. After all, notoriety is his cash value: most of his profits now come from lending his famous name to buildings financed by foreign backers. So here is Trump, waiting for his turn to speak at the charity dinner, self-consciously fixing his orange coif. When Alec Baldwin introduces him as "potentially the next president of the United States," the band breaks out into "Hail to the Chief," and Trump flashes a Nixonian victory sign. A short speech, then Trump's out the door, mixing it up with admirers. "Donald Trump for president!" shouts a woman on the escalator. "Good luck, baby!" This is what it's like to be Donald Trump. In a word: unbelievable.