Gwenda Blair is the author of the bestselling Almost Golden and has written for The New York Times, New York, Newsweek, the New York Daily News, Esquire, Smart Money, The Village Voice, and other newspapers and magazines. She lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
DONALD TRUMP: MASTER APPRENTICE
On a warm fall afternoon, the world's most famous businessman sat next to a pile of 12-inch-tall male dolls. If this were somewhere other than New York City - the South American jungle, say, or ancient China - they might have been mud-and-twig fetishes designed to ward off evil or ceramic objects destined to accompany him into the afterlife. But it was Times Square in September 2004, and Donald Trump was launching a sales campaign at Toys R Us for a plastic action figure modeled in his likeness - more or less. Laser technology had provided the billionaire's pursed mouth and bushy eyebrows, but a shoe-polish brown pompadour had replaced the famous orange comb-over and there were no genitals.
No matter; despite its single-breasted suit and wing-tip shoes, the Apprentice Talking Donald Trump Doll is not really a replica, or even a toy. Instead, it's a pint-sized, personal mentor for viewers of the hit reality television series, "The Apprentice," on which fresh-faced young contestants compete for a job with the Trump Organization. Embedded in the doll's chest is a digital sound chip that allows it to declare, in Trump's own voice, "Have an ego," "Think big," and other pithy bits of advice similar to those he offers each week on the show.
What the doll doesn't reveal are the sources of Donald Trump's own extraordinary success. These include a number of lucky breaks, among them his father's real estate wealth and political connections, his surname (changed by a prescient German ancestor from "Drumpf" to Trump) and his ex-wife Ivana's gift of a catchy nickname, "The Donald," which became instant newspaper fodder.
But of equal importance are what we might call The Donald's Five Commandments: Do whatever it takes to win. Don't spare the chutzpah. Turn everything into an advertisement for yourself. No matter what happens, claim victory. And above all, always use the superlative. While he's heeded business basics like "Location, location, location," his own personal mantra is "Exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate."
Following these guidelines, he's carved out a career in self-aggrandizement that has netted him fortune, fame and enthusiastic fans. Hundreds of them showed up for the one-time-only opportunity to plunk down $26.99 for a doll and The Donald's autograph in metallic gold across the face of the doll's box. They knew him from "The Apprentice" as the archetypal boss: ready to pounce on mistakes, dismissive of excuses and ever aware of the bottom line. What they didn't know was that behind this most recent claim to fame lay a life history with more twists and turns than any television producer could possibly imagine. Nor did they know that Trump himself had been a lifelong apprentice to a powerful man whom he had admired, rebelled against, studied, competed with, and eventually surpassed. "I wanted to do what my father did, but bigger, better, stronger, higher, everything, right?
Fifteen years earlier, that mentor had watched with a bewildered look as Donald sat in another Manhattan toy store, F.A.O. Schwartz, and autographed a Monopoly-like board game with his name and face on it. The man was Donald's father, Fred Trump. Like his son, he was in real estate. Also like his son, he was immensely wealthy. But he had made his money building ordinary homes for ordinary people, not by constructing super-luxury apartments, running casinos, engaging in financial manipulations and turning himself into one of the most celebrated figures of the century. Whereas the erstwhile apprentice lived in the center of photographers' lenses, his master existed outside the media's glare. The two men's lives were vastly different - as different as business in the middle of the twentieth century and at its end, as different as the America of the World War II era had become as the cold war drew to a close.
This apprentice did not always follow his master's advice. When Donald ignored his father's old-fashioned, all-brick aesthetic in favor of modern, glass-walled skyscrapers, he achieved great success; when he disobeyed his father's financial precept s and signed personal financial guarantees for nearly $1 billion, he created a disaster. Only a year after the F.A.O. Schwartz event, Donald's empire lay in shambles. But unlike other magnates of the time, he emerged from financial turmoil to create a second, virtual empire. He would no longer own everything with his name on it; instead, he would market himself as the embodiment of the American dream of wealth and fame. He would be the people's billionaire: the personality brand created by the dark suit, the improbable hair-do, and the over-the-top description of every undertaking as the world's most fantastic, amazing and incredible.
Only a dozen years earlier, many had considered him finished, but his current life seemed to be, quite literally, gold-plated. To the contestants on his show as well as the world at large, he seemed the quintessential man in charge. But the reason he had survived and flourished was that he had, once again, been an apprentice, resolutely adhering to his father's most fundamental rule: No matter what happens, never, ever give up.