Los Angeles

Of all the bizarre twists Campaign 2000 has taken, there is none so strange as the one that finds us on the rooftop of L'Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. The media have come to explore the possible presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, who has himself formed an exploratory committee, blanketed the talk shows, and threatened to spend $ 100 million to win not just the Reform party nomination, but "the whole megillah."

L'Ermitage is a magnet for studio junkets and celebrities convalescing after rhinoplasty. The hotel's suites run up to $ 3,800 per night, so demanding guests can expect amenities like personalized cell phones and 88-inch pool towels. It's what The Donald would call a "class facility," and he knows of what he speaks. Not only is Trump, in his own demure phraseology, "the biggest developer in the hottest city in the world," but his very pores emit class. In fact, he uses the word frequently -- as an adjective, not a noun. Thus, everything associated with him is classy, even unauthorized biographies, like The Really, Really Classy Donald Trump Quiz Book.

Standing on the panoramic rooftop next to the classy pool, reporters anticipate Trump's arrival for a press conference. While waiting, we help ourselves to the Purel hand-sanitizers that Trump aides have kindly set out in a fishbowl. The Donald thinks shaking hands is "barbaric" and unhygienic. Politics, however, is about compromise. Twenty yards away, a television crew sets up for an interview with actress Whoopi Goldberg. I have spent so much time talking to Trump's aides over the past week that I feel qualified to speak not only for them, but like them. So I approach the Goldberg camp, informing no one in particular, "Mr. Trump doesn't like to share the spotlight."

"Whoopi doesn't either," snaps a Goldberg lackey, "and she's a real celebrity." The Trump camp tries unsuccessfully to get the Goldberg camp to relocate. So instead of conducting the press conference by the shaded pool, the Trump press conference moves to a sun-scorched section of the terrace, making The Donald squint even more than usual.

As he takes the podium, Trump's entire entourage is present. There's Roger Stone, his political consigliere, who is, as always, immaculately and ornately haberdashed in cafe-au-lait suede shoes and a gangster boldstripe suit. "I haven't bought off the rack since I was 17," says Stone. There is Trump's bodyguard, all muscle and menace. His name is Matt Calamari, so we immediately start calling him "Matty the Squid," though not to his face. Most important, there is Melania Knauss, Trump's 26-year-old supermodel girlfriend, who is four years removed from her native Slovenia. Melania. Her name is like a song. Her skirt is short, her heels are high. Her legs are so long that her torso seems an afterthought. She'd make a class first lady.

Trump tells us that he will be forgoing individual interviews because of the crush of media present. There are only ten of us, and three of us are from German television; The Donald would have time to do interviews, close a deal, and still take Melania shopping before his next engagement. But no matter. Though he will ultimately decide on running for president after "going by my gut," he says his internal "polling has been amazing." He will not tell us the name of his pollster. Nor will he tell us the names of the economists he consulted for his debt-reduction plan, which calls for a one-time 14.5 percent tax on the entire net worth of the richest Americans (and Trump calls Bill Bradley a socialist). Trump quickly wraps up the press conference, promising us more later, and disappears with Melania and the Squid. He does not shake our Purel-coated hands.

Stone immediately swoops in for spin, assuring us that the polling, which Trump seemed suspiciously vague about, is concerned with issues, not the horse race. Stone says they are smoking Pat Buchanan in polls of Reform party members, but have not polled the general election. This seems an odd claim, in light of Trump's "whole megillah" strategy. But we are quickly on to more important things, like how Stone is able to achieve a perfect double-dimple below his tie knot. Stone insists I remove my tie, and as we document his every move, he puts on a double-dimple clinic. "It takes a while to learn," he says. "We're gonna have to work on it."

With Trump off-limits until that evening, Stone sets up a media availability with Melania. Next to a lobby anteroom where Melania sits, Whoopie Goldberg waltzes by. I ask her if she'd support a Trump candidacy. "What does he stand for?" she asks. "Donald Trump," deadpans another reporter. Melania is getting used to this sort of cynicism, and she is not easy pickings for interrogators. I ask her if she considers herself a supermodel, or just a really swell model. "I'm a person first," she says in her Slovenian accent, "and then I have a great career." (Good answer: Decisive. Evasive. Conveys confidence without conceit.) When asked whether, as first lady, she would have a pet initiative like Barbara Bush's literacy or Betty Ford's alcoholism, she responds, "Yes, I love children." (Textbook: When in doubt, invoke children.) When asked if she is creeped out by Trump's germ phobia, she says, "You know, there are a lot of germs from colds and flu, and nobody is really talking about this." (What a pro.)

That night, we follow Trump to a taping of the Jay Leno show in Burbank. As Trump cools his heels in the dressing room before the show, Leno pops in for a visit, and sees Stone in his Bugsy Siegel rig. "Hey Donald," cracks Leno, "you brought your bookie." We journalists are briefly permitted into the studio to watch the pre-show festivities. Warm-up comic Bob Perlow plies the crowd with stale jokes and show tunes. Then, spotting Melania in the audience, he insists she come up to the stage, where she is asked to dance seductively while throwing souvenir t-shirts into the audience. Tonight Show staffers claim this is a pre-game tradition, but one suspects they invented it as an excuse to watch Melania gyrate.

She is supremely uncomfortable and refuses to comply, darting back to her seat, which is a piano wire's width away from Matty the Squid's. Wisely, Perlow does not persist. Stone comes out and stands next to me. He is concerned for Melania's well-being. But mostly, he is concerned about my newly double-dimpled tie. "No good," he says, shaking his head disapprovingly.

Back in the green room, after the show begins, we munch melon wedges and finger sandwiches with singer Michael Bolton's entourage. A Leno staffer says we will not be permitted into Trump's dressing room after the show. I protest to Stone, who, like any Trump devotee, tries to make a deal. He'll get us access, "but you'll refrain from making fun of Mr. Trump's hair again." Stone is referring to an article I wrote some months ago in which I charged that Mr. Trump's coif resembled an abandoned nest. Having now seen Trump's hair up close, I make no promises.

Though Leno mercilessly rags Trump, alleging at one point that he caught a sexually transmitted disease -- from himself, Trump has the audience eating from his antiseptic palm. Of the women of the Clinton scandal, he says, "You have some beauties in that deal." Of his competition, Pat Buchanan, he says, "he's obviously been having a love affair with Adolf Hitler." One of Trump's loudest applause lines, which works everywhere he goes, is "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I've never had a cup of coffee." It comes as a surprise, but tea-drinkers may be the soccer moms of the 2000 election.

In Trump's dressing room after the show, five reporters and a 60 Minutes camera crew are chatting with The Donald. Leno stops by, holding a copy of Trump's upcoming campaign manifesto. Unable to obtain a review copy less than a month before publication, I ask Leno to see it. He passes the book, but it will not open. "It's a dummy copy," quips Leno, "[the book] hasn't been written yet." Trump asserts to skeptical reporters that his flirtation with the presidency isn't just a publicity drive for his book. The revenue the book generates, he says, will pay for his "airplane fuel to go back and forth from California." Besides, he repeats several times in the same conversation, he's already had three number-one bestsellers. Likewise, he is "running the biggest real estate empire in the world" and he's "very competent and very rich," though "I don't want to toot my own horn." It's not his way.

Trump invites us back to L'Ermitage for a reception with about 100 Reform party activists who pack The Donald's cavernous Governor's Suite, two floors below the Presidential Suite. He serves them goat cheese on black olive ciabatta and good Merlot, not the boxed Zinfandel they are accustomed to. The California crowd is stylish by Reform standards, but there are still a fair number of double-knit suits and visible nosehairs. As Trump takes the podium, Melania stands at his side, her Piaget watch refracting light as she shifts restlessly on her sinewy, tanned stilts. Trump takes questions from the audience, warning, "the camera is 60 Minutes, don't worry about them. It's this little program on television . . . so don't worry about embarrassing ourselves with questions."

Trump, it seems, is a bit sensitive to the media perception of the Reform party, which falls somewhere between comic relief and sad joke. This was reinforced yet again when eight Reform party presidential "candidates," including Pat Buchanan, met on December 3 for a debate. At the Portland, Oregon, Marriott, about 100 people assembled to hear the views of several crackpot prospects, while a microphone stand repeatedly toppled over, one candidate's name was misspelled, and Buchanan's speech was overshadowed by a Native American dance ceremony in the neighboring ballroom. A week before this California swing, I asked a Trump aide why Trump wouldn't be attending this debate. "What debate?" he asked, convincingly pretending ignorance.

Holding court in his suite, Trump answers Reformer concerns. He casts aspersions on the WTO and the U.S. trade representative. "Where does she come from?" he asks. "Has she made billions of dollars?" He rubs turpentine in the wounds of black-helicopter types, saying that he believes in the United Nations so strongly that "I'm building a 90-story building right next to it." Though some hecklers ding him for dumping on other Reformers, Trump tears into Pat Buchanan and his new ally, the radical Lenora Fulani. "We have the ultra-right and a Communist, you can have that party," Trump says. When one gentleman asks Trump if he'll support the party platform, Trump says, "Nobody knows what the platform is." Someone brings him a copy. Trump says he'll read it, but leaves it on the podium when the Q&A session ends.

It's a virtuoso performance. Trump has disagreed with, chided, and even insulted his constituency, and yet they mob him afterwards, won over by either his Merlot or his candor. As Melania disappears into a back room to avoid getting pawed by the double-knits, Trump lunges into the throng, shaking hands -- shaking hands! -- and signing campaign literature. He looks my way, beaming. Holding up a picture of himself, he asks, "Isn't he handsome?"

A few hours after the reception, a small group of reporters are off to The Ivy. The Ivy is one of those insider Hollywood restaurants where out-of-towners come to experience the epicenter of cool, though since we know about it, it's likely on the verge of extinction. We are shunted off to a lonely patio corner with an obstructed view. Trump's fellow Tonight Show guest, Michael Bolton, sits at the next table, temporarily unaware of our existence. After about ten minutes, the Trump entourage, having already eaten, emerges from an inner sanctum where they've been chatting up Rod Stewart. Seeing us in the corner, Trump walks over and says to Bolton, in a voice loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear, "Watch out for these guys, they rule the world." Trump then vanishes into his limo, but the very molecular structure of the patio changes around us. Food tastes better. Wine flows freer. Strange women strike up conversations with us from distant tables. Michael Bolton rises to his feet and starts sucking-up profusely to Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. We are, thanks to the Donald, what Matty the Squid might call "made men."

Bolton bores us with earnest accounts of how he's campaigning for Hillary Clinton. But he strikes pay dirt when he tells us how, after Trump once broke up with former wife Marla Maples, Bolton began dating her. It made Trump so jealous that he took her back. But then, "when he could have her," says Bolton, "he didn't want her anymore." As his presidential campaign seems to suggest, Trump is most attracted to things he can't have. Just two months after the death of Princess Di, for example, he expressed profound sadness to Dateline. "I would have loved to have had a shot to date her," he told Stone Phillips, "because she was an absolutely wonderful woman."

"Do you think you would have had a shot?" asked Phillips. "I think so, yeah," responded The Donald, "I always have a shot." Classy.

The next day, we rise at dawn to follow Trump to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, which bills itself, in Trumpian fashion, as a "world-class human rights laboratory." Trump says he was asked to come here, though Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the center tells us Trump made the request. Whatever: It's a natural photo-op for Trump, who may wind up running against a man who's having "a love affair with Adolf Hitler." The Donald, Melania, and the media scrum follow Cooper through exhibits like the "Point of View Dinner," and a film montage depicting atrocities throughout the world. The Donald gazes intently, brow knitted, his lips fixed in puckered protrusion. In profile, he looks like a distressed mallard.

As we walk through the museum, he and Melania occasionally lock fingers, while Trump tries to impress the Rabbi by dropping the names of Jewish friends. "Do you know Nelson Peltz?" he asks, "Fantastic guy." We walk through the Holocaust section, where there are re-creations of everything from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz. Throughout the trip, Trump keeps saying things like "Good job, Rabbi" and "Great location," as if he is assessing one of his Atlantic City properties.

At the end of the tour, I approach Roger Stone, who is wearing "Nixon Is the One" cufflinks, to ask if Trump will make news. "Is that what you want?" asks Stone, handing me a press release in which Trump will again denounce Buchanan. Trump gives a modified version of the statement in the museum atrium, praising the center but omitting the Buchanan references. By the end of the Q&A, however, he's again fitted Buchanan in brownshirt and jackboots. After the press conference, I try to talk about the speech with Stone, but his mind is on other things. He's looking me straight in the cravat.

"Your knot needs work," he says.

From the Wiesenthal Center, we board Trump's 727 at LAX for the 15-minute ride to Long Beach, where Trump will make $ 100,000 for 20 minutes' work addressing 21,000 people at self-help guru Tony Robbins's seminar. In a word, the plane is classy. Everything is fashioned from mahogany and teak. Crystal bar glasses and decanters line the cabinets (though The Donald doesn't drink), and priceless works of art hang throughout the cabin (the art, Trump says, is "off the record" for security reasons). With all these mangy journalists in tow, Trump has several mild panic attacks: "Don't put the glass on the table"; "Watch the paintings, fellas." But he quickly settles into boys-club gregariousness, punching reporters in the arm, talking about hot supermodels, and fielding compliments about Melania. "Pretty incredible, right?" he asks. "She's a beauty, and it's not just here," he says, pointing to his face. "It's the inner beauty, too."

I catch up with Trump in his kitchenette as he tears into a bag of Lay's potato chips. Still curious about the Wiesenthal tour, which one could categorize as pretty cynical political theater, I ask if Donald Trump is good for the Jews. "Yes," he says immediately.

"How?" I ask.

"Not now," he says, crunching into a chip, "I gotta think about my f -- in' speech."

At the Long Beach Airport, we deplane and board a chartered bus, appropriately titled, "A Touch of Class." We head to Arrowhead Pond arena, home of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team, which is filled with Tony Robbins seminarians who've spent hundreds of dollars to glean success secrets from celebrity guests like Larry King (marry eight times, ask softball questions).

Tony Robbins, remember, was once invited to Camp David to give success advice to President Clinton. Here, on stage, Robbins dons a headset mike and dances like an epileptic to a mega-mix version of "Real Wild One." Middle managers are instructed to knead each other's necks. "It's okay for guys to rub guys!" Robbins exclaims. Backstage, Trump has a case of nerves, skittishly pacing and shaking his legs to the beat. I tell him to picture his audience naked, and he seems to accept my counsel, wiggling his bushy brows as a female Robbins staffer walks by in a tank top that threatens her circulation.

Robbins introduces Trump to a receptive crowd, and Trump enters to two stageside explosions that nearly ignite his hair. Trump is not opposed to the nerf platitudes of self-help gurus; he and first wife, Ivana, were married by Mr. Positive Thinking himself, Norman Vincent Peale. But today Trump offers a different kind of success recipe, one that sounds like a song-of-the-street beatitude uttered by Frank Sinatra and transcribed by Jilly Rizzo. Commandment One: "People tend to be very vicious, as the boxers say, 'Keep the left up.'" Commandment Two: "Get even. When somebody screws you, screw'em back, but a lot harder." Commandment Three: "Always have a pre-nup." The crowd is ecstatic. Robbins is embarrassed. "It's not exactly my values," he says offstage. After the Pre-nup Commandment, I watch Melania. She forces a smile. But the lovelight momentarily flickers out in her eyes.

In a VIP tent after his performance, Trump faces a select group of tortellini-eating businessmen who've paid additional sums to ask questions of the celebrities. Ever the charmer, Trump chooses his interrogators by identifying their salient physical characteristics: "the bald guy in the suit" or "the beautiful woman in the semi-blouse." Of a Yorba Linda resident seeking Trump's advice about running for city council, Trump asks, "Are you a Reform candidate?"

"Yes," the man says.

"Lotsa luck," Trump replies.

Another woman asks how she can create capital "when all I have is my knowledge and training." Trump thinks a moment, then says, "Meet a wealthy guy." He distills his political philosophy into a very simple formula: "In business and in life, people want to hear straight talk. We're tired of being bull -- ed by these moron politicians." The crowd is nearly speaking in tongues.

After the event, Stone enters our bus: "I'm here, who needs to be spun?" I ask how The Donald expects to sustain support when he so frequently expresses obvious contempt for everyone but himself. "You piss 50 percent of the people off no matter what you say," says Stone. By his reckoning, Trump needs "only" 35-40 percent of the vote in a three-way election. That seems like a lot. Could that many Americans possibly want Donald Trump to be their president? You wouldn't think so. On the other hand, at the Tony Robbins seminar, 21,000 people have just paid $ 270 apiece to derive wisdom from Billy Blanks, the founder of Tae-Bo.

Before boarding the plane with reporters for a return ride back to Manhattan (the hottest city with the biggest developer), Trump is still discussing the Robbins "love fest" in colorful terms: "Did you see that one woman? She had an amazing body, but a schoolmarm's face." Wisely, he decides to go off the record for the rest of the flight, so we "can relax and have fun."

"Who wants to take up the plane?" he asks, allowing reporters to sit in the cockpit. The in-flight movie choice is Midnight Express or The Godfather. Trump picks the former, though Matty the Squid looks disappointed. Melania has shed her Blahnik pumps and pads barefoot around the cabin like an exotic cat. "We have pizza," she purrs. For the next six hours, we share locker-room banter that if transcribed could put an end to several careers. Trump's candor makes John McCain look Nixonian by comparison. As the adventure ends, Trump repeatedly taunts reporters, wondering how we'll ever go back to covering Al Gore and flying coach. It seems a sensible question.

Here's hoping The Donald runs.

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