Some claim that Donald Trump is completely unprepared for the rigours of the US presidency, but that’s way off the mark. However maverick his politics, Trump nailed at least one vital presidential skill over a quarter of a century ago — how to do a really world-class motorcade. I know this because I was in it.
One scorching hot day in April 1990, I stepped out of a private jet with him on to the baking tarmac inIndianapolis and joined the future billionaire presidential hopeful in a fleet of vehicles that began speeding along the highway, flanked by cop cars.
Everything was awesome. The suburbs tracked by, the sirens wailed, the lights flashed. It felt great to be this important.
There was one niggling concern: where was the procession actually going ? This was before Google Maps, obviously. It was before proper mobiles. The motorcade had to grind to a halt on a hot street corner while one of the party rummaged around in a scruffy plastic bag, searched through scraps of paper for a scribbled number, and then headed to a pay phone. Two women wandered over.
‘Who’s in the limo ?’ they asked.
I was working for an American weekly at the time, having recently graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and I had somehow stumbled into a much bigger story than a cub reporter like me deserved. I was determined not to miss any opportunity for reflected glory.
‘Donald Trump,’ I announced with a carefully calibrated mix of pride and nonchalance.
‘Yeah, right,’ said one.
Time to play my second card: ‘And you’re not going to believe this, but Michael Jackson’s in there too.’
They both smiled sarcastically, then walked away.
My fleeting immersion in the hyperreal, adrenalised Trump bubble had begun a week earlier at the Taj Mahal. Not, of course, the smallish Taj in Agra visited by Princess Diana. No, I’m talking about the brand-new ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, a 1,250-room hotel casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey which Donald Trump was unveiling for the first time to the world’s media.
The Taj signalled a major, bond-backed expansion of Trump’s property empire, which already included his ‘tower’ on Fifth Avenue (he had a triplex at the top), various other Manhattan buildings, and two othercasinos on the windswept Atlantic City boardwalk. Building successfully on the East Coast had meant navigating city bureaucracies and construction unions and high-powered debt funding. This was a high water mark in Trump’s legend-building, confirmation of his status as New York’s premier property tycoon.
The Taj Mahal had extraordinary interiors, featuring nine two-ton stone elephants and (it was claimed) $14 million worth of Austrian chandeliers. The doormen wore purple robes with feathered turbans, and there were belly dancers at work in the lobby. A prestigious opening was in store. I was given a tour of the finest suite; it was Aladdin meets Donatella Versace’s underwear drawer. Launching all this required not just fanfare and news cameras, but also bona fide royalty.
Enter the King of Pop.
Michael Jackson in 1990 was at the very pinnacle of his fame. This was before his story turned sour. Whether he was paid to come or turned up for free, I didn’t discover, but his unannounced appearance caused a whirling sandstorm at the Taj Mahal. If Queen Cleopatra herself had risen from the dead and checked in using a solid gold Amex card there could have been no more excitement in reception than that which greeted Jacko’s arrival.
Only one man could control the situation: stepforward The Donald.
Taking Michael by the arm, Trump steered him through the pandemonium on the ground floor. A comprehensive tour took in reception, a crowded escalator (I’ve no idea where it went), the football-field-sizedgaming floor and the 24-hour slots. The TV news guys rolled along euphorically to document the chaos, not quite believing their luck. At one point, if memory serves, we took refuge in a Chinese restaurant.
Trump staged an extravagant launch presentation which foreshadowed the circus-like atmosphere of his 2016 presidential rallies. He knew where to put the spotlight. He didn’t need a PR team — if I met one that day, I don’t remember it. He was a one-man PR team.
Michael Jackson retired to his suite. I later heard a rumour that he’d been spotted disguised as an old woman, playing the slots with a plastic bucket full of quarters. Meanwhile, Trump got on energetically with the marketing — an Olympics of superlatives with only one contestant. Biggest, greatest, most expensive, finest, pure class, high-rollers, helicopters and gold. And that was just his hair.
On the second day, Trump invited me to an ‘exclusive’ bondholders’ party at ‘Trump’s Castle’ — a less glitzy casino a block or two away. Trump conducted the meeting of these investors like a maestro. His bombastic symphony of success was already fully composed — to be performed later on ever-bigger stages, beginning with The Apprentice and culminating in the 2016 Republican convention. As the party got under way, I circulated as a de facto Princess Diana expert, which was the main function of all English people in suburban America at that time. At least I had some role in the drama.
The next morning in my room at the Taj, my hotel phone rang.
‘Good morning Alex,’ said Trump. He was good at names, good at fixing the individual with the laser beam that top politicians and celebrities deploy. ‘Like to come on a trip with me and Michael today?’
If an important part of the president’s job is soaking up attention, of being the focus point in America’s moronic inferno (as Martin Amis put it), then Trump’s had plenty of practice.
We were travelling on a private jet — a prototypical Hair Force One, though to be fair it wasn’t Trump’s — and I was seated across from the two headliners at a table for four. A nervous flier, I wondered whether being on a jet with Donald Trump and Michael Jackson made a crash more or less statistically probable. Would the pilots be dazzled by the celebrity wattage? Headlines flashed into my thoughts: ‘Jacko and Trump in Private Jet Horror’.
Michael was a nervous presence, taller than you’d think, with a finely shaped nose and visible make-up. If he had scars, you couldn’t see them. He spoke very little and in that weird, high-pitched whisper which would not have felt out of place in a Star Trek movie. I couldn’t make out what he was saying and thought it would be impertinent to ask him to repeat himself. So I nodded along, grinning enthusiastically. I’d be surprised if Trump could make head or tail of it either, but he was polite and good-humoured about it. All casino owners have a good poker face.
Michael pulled out a copy of the National Enquirer, then as now the gold standard when it came toscandalous celebrity tittle-tattle. The Enquirer’s front-page headline was often about Jackson. But this time it was some nonsense about Donald Trump.
At this point I remembered my course in photo-journalism. A picture of Michael Jackson reading the National Enquirer, with a cover story about Donald Trump, who happened to be sitting next to him on a private jet, would have been a media studies classic. I had a camera on the table, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. Like Madame Bovary, I wanted to feel like one of the aristocrats at the ball, rather than a peasant with his nose pressed up against the glass. Or maybe it was just cowardice. These celebrity demi-gods are capricious. Access so casually granted can just as casually be withdrawn.
After landing in Indianapolis — our motorcade rebooted — we finally discovered where it was we were supposed to be going. As it turned out, the reason we were there was that Michael Jackson wanted to visit a sick child and his minder knew where he lived. I stayed by the car. The engagement over, we careered back to the airport, back up into the sky and back to New Jersey. And as the sun set on our fun day out, Trump wrote a polite thank-you note to the guy who had loaned Jacko the jet — Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony. (Yes, Trump writes thank-you notes, at least to fellow business swashbucklers.) Trump and I then settled into the back seat of another limo for a ride back to New York.
This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I was an Oxford PPE graduate with an hour of one-to-one time with The Donald. It was time to give the future presidential candidate a real grilling.
Except I didn’t. It was all banter. Trump liked colourful stories. He made funny conversation. He didn’t seem to me unbalanced or ranting. With hindsight, he was more like a politician-in-waiting, 25 years before his big political moment. He had the limo, the suit, the fully strategised hair, the pink tie, the iron self-belief, the visionary outlook, the presidential self-confidence — all theattributes he has today. But as yet, no articulated policy positions.
Now, like most people, I look on in utter bemusement when he airs his big ideas: the Mexican wall, the travel ban on Muslims, the protectionist trade policy, the aversion to gun control, the angry invective about more or less everything. None of his reactionary attitude was in evidence when I met him a quarter of a century ago.
Maybe Trump the man is more liberal and normal than the podium-chewing zealot currently showing on TV. Or maybe Trump really is a volatile, hard-right isolationist. The Trump of 2016 is certainly of a piece with the confident carnival master I shared a limo with in 1990, and his spotlight-hogging nowadays fits with his magnetic persona then. But the politics? There was not a hint of them.
Either way, he does at least know something about how to be presidential — he knows how to rock a motorcade. He knows how to create a good narrative. And he knows how to exploit charisma — whether that of a megastar like Michael Jackson, or his own.
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he’s a thriller.