THE MORAL LIFE: THE ART OF THE CON, Part Three

{continued from the preceding post on Abyssum.org}

Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All

“The Art of the Deal” made America see Trump as a charmer with an unfailing knack for business. Tony Schwartz helped create that myth—and regrets it.

When Schwartz began writing “The Art of the Deal,” he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, “I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.” Schwartz now disavows the passage. “Deceit,” he told me, is never “innocent.” He added, “ ‘Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?’ ” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.

In his journal, Schwartz describes the process of trying to make Trump’s voice palatable in the book. It was kind of “a trick,” he writes, to mimic Trump’s blunt, staccato, no-apologies delivery while making him seem almost boyishly appealing. One strategy was to make it appear that Trump was just having fun at the office. “I try not to take any of what’s happened too seriously,” Trump says in the book. “The real excitement is playing the game.”

In his journal, Schwartz wrote, “Trump stands for many of the things I abhor: his willingness to run over people, the gaudy, tacky, gigantic obsessions, the absolute lack of interest in anything beyond power and money.” Looking back at the text now, Schwartz says, “I created a character far more winning than Trump actually is.” The first line of the book is an example. “I don’t do it for the money,” Trump declares. “I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” Schwartz now laughs at this depiction of Trump as a devoted artisan. “Of course he’s in it for the money,” he said. “One of the most deep and basic needs he has is to prove that ‘I’m richer than you.’ ” As for the idea that making deals is a form of poetry, Schwartz says, “He was incapable of saying something like that—it wouldn’t even be in his vocabulary.” He saw Trump as driven not by a pure love of dealmaking but by an insatiable hunger for “money, praise, and celebrity.” Often, after spending the day with Trump, and watching him pile one hugely expensive project atop the next, like a circus performer spinning plates, Schwartz would go home and tell his wife, “He’s a living black hole!”

Schwartz reminded himself that he was being paid to tell Trump’s story, not his own, but the more he worked on the project the more disturbing he found it. In his journal, he describes the hours he spent with Trump as “draining” and “deadening.” Schwartz told me that Trump’s need for attention is “completely compulsive,” and that his bid for the Presidency is part of a continuum. “He’s managed to keep increasing the dose for forty years,” Schwartz said. After he’d spent decades as a tabloid titan, “the only thing left was running for President. If he could run for emperor of the world, he would.”

Rhetorically, Schwartz’s aim in “The Art of the Deal” was to present Trump as the hero of every chapter, but, after looking into some of his supposedly brilliant deals, Schwartz concluded that there were cases in which there was no way to make Trump look good. So he sidestepped unflattering incidents and details. “I didn’t consider it my job to investigate,” he says.

Schwartz also tried to avoid the strong whiff of cronyism that hovered over some deals. In his 1986 journal, he describes what a challenge it was to “put his best foot forward” in writing about one of Trump’s first triumphs: his development, starting in 1975, of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on the site of the former Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central Terminal. In order to afford the hotel, Trump required an extremely large tax abatement. Richard Ravitch, who was then in charge of the agency that had the authority to grant such tax breaks to developers, recalls that he declined to grant the abatement, and Trump got “so unpleasant I had to tell him to get out.” Trump got it anyway, largely because key city officials had received years of donations from his father, Fred Trump, who was a major real-estate developer in Queens. Wayne Barrett, whose reporting for the Voice informed his definitive 1991 book, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” says, “It was all Fred’s political connections that created the abatement.” In addition, Trump snookered rivals into believing that he had an exclusive option from the city on the project, when he didn’t. Trump also deceived his partner in the deal, Jay Pritzker, the head of the Hyatt Hotel chain. Pritzker had rejected an unfavorable term proposed by Trump, but at the closing Trump forced it through, knowing that Pritzker was on a mountain in Nepal and could not be reached. Schwartz wrote in his journal that “almost everything” about the hotel deal had “an immoral cast.” But as the ghostwriter he was “trying hard to find my way around” behavior that he considered “if not reprehensible, at least morally questionable.”

Many tall tales that Trump told Schwartz contained a kernel of truth but made him out to be cleverer than he was. One of Trump’s favorite stories was about how he had tricked the company that owned Holiday Inn into becoming his partner in an Atlantic City casino. Trump claimed that he had quieted executives’ fears of construction delays by ordering his construction supervisor to make a vacant lot that he owned look like “the most active construction site in the history of the world.” As Trump tells it in “The Art of the Deal,” there were so many dump trucks and bulldozers pushing around dirt and filling holes that had just been dug that when Holiday Inn executives visited the site it “looked as if we were in the midst of building the Grand Coulee Dam.” The stunt, Trump claimed, pushed the deal through. After the book came out, though, a consultant for Trump’s casinos, Al Glasgow, who is now deceased, told Schwartz, “It never happened.” There may have been one or two trucks, but not the fleet that made it a great story.

Schwartz tamped down some of Trump’s swagger, but plenty of it remained. The manuscript that Random House published was, depending on your perspective, either entertainingly insightful or shamelessly self-aggrandizing. To borrow a title from Norman Mailer, who frequently attended prizefights at Trump’s Atlantic City hotels, the book could have been called “Advertisements for Myself.”

In 2005, Timothy L. O’Brien, an award-winning journalist who is currently the executive editor of Bloomberg View, published “Trump Nation,” a meticulous investigative biography. (Trump unsuccessfully sued him for libel.) O’Brien has taken a close look at “The Art of the Deal,” and he told me that it might be best characterized as a “nonfiction work of fiction.” Trump’s life story, as told by Schwartz, honestly chronicled a few setbacks, such as Trump’s disastrous 1983 purchase of the New Jersey Generals, a football team in the flailing United States Football League. But O’Brien believes that Trump used the book to turn almost every step of his life, both personal and professional, into a “glittering fable.”

Some of the falsehoods in “The Art of the Deal” are minor. Spy upended Trump’s claims that Ivana had been a “top model” and an alternate on the Czech Olympic ski team. Barrett notes that in “The Art of the Deal” Trump describes his father as having been born in New Jersey to Swedish parents; in fact, he was born in the Bronx to German parents. (Decades later, Trump spread falsehoods about Obama’s origins, claiming it was possible that the President was born in Africa.)

In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump portrays himself as a warm family man with endless admirers. He praises Ivana’s taste and business skill—“I said you can’t bet against Ivana, and she proved me right.” But Schwartz noticed little warmth or communication between Trump and Ivana, and he later learned that while “The Art of the Deal” was being written Trump began an affair with Marla Maples, who became his second wife. (He divorced Ivana in 1992.) As far as Schwartz could tell, Trump spent very little time with his family and had no close friends. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump describes Roy Cohn, his personal lawyer, in the warmest terms, calling him “the sort of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed . . . literally standing by you to the death.” Cohn, who in the fifties assisted Senator Joseph McCarthy in his vicious crusade against Communism, was closeted. He felt abandoned by Trump when he became fatally ill from AIDS, and said, “Donald pisses ice water.” Schwartz says of Trump, “He’d like people when they were helpful, and turn on them when they weren’t. It wasn’t personal. He’s a transactional man—it was all about what you could do for him.”

{CONTINUED ON THE NEXT POST ON ABYSSUM.ORG}

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.