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If Donald Trump has nothing else -- humor me -- he has timing. And if the prospect of an Axl Rose comeback album weren't enough to infuse the air with Eau de Late '80s, on Monday the markets took a 10th-anniversary dive, just four days before Trump's new book, The Art of the Comeback, would hit the stands, as if to kick off a grand nostalgia week for a beloved crony from the old days. Crank up the Poison and cut me a line, baby, it's 1987 again!
Certainly, for these past few weeks, Trump himself has been working overtime to recall his "Art of the Deal"-era heyday of media omnipresence, spasmodically grabbing headlines wherever the news cycle offered an opening: His penciled-into-the-galleys regret that he never dated Princess Diana garnered The Art of the Comeback a jolt of pre-publication buzz in the New York tabloids, and he interjected himself into the New Jersey governor's race with a surprise broadside against Christine Todd Whitman, apropos, apparently, of nothing but his own self-importance.
Yet Comeback is on its gold-plated surface the story of a business resurrection, not a public-profile one. At the beginning of the decade Trump nearly went bankrupt in what he insists on calling "the Depression of 1990." (No pointy-headed economist is going to tell Donald Trump he got clocked by a mere "recession.") The book begins in the real-estate dealmaker's dark hour and establishes early on his idea of a touching vignette -- it's like reading Frank Norris' evil but equally unsubtle twin:
"I pointed across the street to a man holding a cup and with a Seeing Eye dog. I asked, 'Do you know who that is?'"
"Marla said to me: 'Yes, Donald. He's a beggar. Isn't it too bad? He looks so sad!'"
"I said, 'You're right. He's a beggar, but he's worth about $900 million more than me.'"
We can only hope the beggar was able to renegotiate his debt with 90 international banks on favorable terms. Trump was, and Comeback is ostensibly the story of how he thus bought himself time to get out from under. The problem is, he could, and does, tell that story in one chapter. The rest of the book is a how-I-spent-the-'90s report rehashing Trump's deals, divorces and controversies -- the Mar-a-Lago renovation, the Riverside South saga, the legal quashing of Ivana -- through self-serving elision and indirection. Here's the Atlantic City kingpin on his campaign against casino gambling in New York: "Gambling would've been a very bad thing for New York, and the politicians ultimately realized that." Coauthor Kate Bohner must have either a surgically constructed poker face or permanent tooth marks in her tongue.
But that's run-of-the-mill revisionism. The book's real dishonesty is that it's passed off at least partly as an advice book, in the swimming-with-sharks mold of corporate vanity tomes like Peter Lynch's or Trump's own past blockbusters. But although Trump throws us a list of 10 comeback tips -- "be passionate," "stay focused" -- that he never expounds on, what real lessons can Joe Waldenbooks draw from Trump's exploits? If your business tanks, make sure you're in so deep the banks have to save your keister? Foreign investors don't understand Manhattan real estate?
Comeback does have its pleasures -- for instance, the taut narrative tension between the authorial id and the legal department's superego: "Then I fired him. (He says he quit.)" Another lies in Trump tip No. 9: "Get even." Trump settles scores deliciously: An Upper West Side antidevelopment activist "was easy to defeat ... I enjoyed grinding her into the ground"; a bothersome Citibank official "thinks she's hot shit"; Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett is "a jerk" (Trump devotes a whole chapter to his loathing of the media). And give Trump credit for one kind of honesty -- he doesn't pretend he's a nice guy. In a chapter on prenuptial agreements, he essentially says there are three types of women -- two who won't sign the prenup and one who will, just to screw you -- and a sane man shouldn't marry any of them.
So why write such a pointless and ultimately ugly book, besides generosity toward Binky Urban? After all, as Trump would gladly tell you, he could have made twice as much money trading buildings in the time it took the typist to input the copyright page. The short answer, sure, is pride. The long answer is wounded pride.
See, the dirty secret is, Donald Trump never came back. Oh, he got his money back. But being Donald Trump was never quite about the money. It was about leaving his stamp -- his golden T -- on his age. The Donald Trump of 1987 was American power embodied: He was our gluttony artist, poised to take Manhattan and more. Today, he's what? A rich landlord. A regional celebrity. A museum piece with no more grip on the popular imagination than a railroad tycoon. For while Trump regained his mere shekels, he was eclipsed and outbillionaired by Gateses, Ellisons and Turners, the ones who capture the popular imagination the 1990s way, by buying and selling pieces of it.
Trump's cock-crowing all over Comeback is an elegy for his own lost relevance. Even the name-dropping reeks of sad '80s reverie -- Michael Jackson, Madonna, Carl Icahn -- and the book is plastered with more celebrity photos than a Planet Hollywood franchise: How dare you call me a has-been! Look at me with Sly Stallone! He complains petulantly that no one recognizes that "real estate is the backbone of this country." He coyly denies his rumored political ambitions, as though anyone has cared about them since three administrations ago.
Donald Trump is today worth over a billion dollars; he may yet be worth several billion. But until marketing hunks of dirt regains cultural-commercial parity with developing operating systems, he will be a Master of the Universe in a Mortal Kombat era. He may score another bestseller, but he will never be Donald Trump again. -- Salon