Trump bombs in first Reform appearance

The Donald needs to do some homework before opening his mouth.

Published October 4, 1999 11:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump is lucky the interview he gave last Friday wasn't published in Playboy. Because while Jesse Ventura was being raked over the coals for some flippant remarks he made about religion, Tailhook and fat people, the Donald was performing a huge belly-flop in front of the very folks he'll have to attract if he decides to battle Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party's presidential nomination.

Trump's stumble came at this weekend's convention of the American Reform Party at the Holiday Inn on the Hill. ARP is a splinter organization of ex-Perotistas that broke away from the Reform Party in 1997 out of disgust with the lack of genuine democracy within the organization.

Though the ARP is smaller than the Reform Party, with chapters in perhaps 20 states and ballot lines in none, it is a serious organization that primarily focuses on the issues rather than personalities.

Its platform, which has been developed through a process of ongoing deliberation, takes clear, specific stands on such topics as tax reform (move toward a graduated flat tax or a consumption tax), government spending (pay down the debt), immigration (tighten restrictions), political reform (term limits and public financing of elections) and trade (protection of labor rights and the environment).

And though its members are not currently part of the Reform Party, the two groups may reunite in the near future, making the ARP potentially a significant base for the more moderate voices in the whole Reform movement.

No doubt it was a desire to be seen as reaching out to these moderates (and to create some interference for Lowell Weicker, who had already agreed to keynote) that led Donald Trump to call the ARP's convention planners the day before the meeting began and ask to be added to the agenda, via a live telephone hookup that he offered to pay for.

But while the phone connection was clear, and the hundred or so assembled ARP leaders were clearly pleased at the attention and the chance to grill a prospective candidate, the Donald couldn't have played a worse hand.

"I am seriously looking at the Reform Party and the nomination," Trump began. "A lot of people are saying that maybe Donald Trump is just promoting a book, but that is not why I am involved."

"I am very comfortable with the Reform Party platform," he declared. And then he started to grab both feet and insert them into his mouth, one at a time.

"I'm strongly in favor of a very deep tax cut for the working people of America." People in the room started shaking their heads in bewilderment. If there is one thing all the various Reformers agree on, it is that paying down the national debt has to come before everything else, including tax cuts.

"Campaign finance needs an overhaul," Trump went on. Charles Riggs, an ARP activist who has led the party's thinking on political reform measures, asked for details. Does Trump support the McCain-Feingold bill banning soft money, or stronger measures being passed in the states creating full public financing systems? "I believe you should be able to help a candidate as much as possible," Trump answered, after bragging that he may well be the country's single biggest contributor to campaigns if you include the hundreds of thousands he's given to state and municipal candidates.

How would Trump reduce corporate welfare? Nelisse Muga of San Diego asked. "I am a believer in corporations," Trump answered. Someone murmured, "He is a corporation." "Corporate welfare is a word I hate," Trump continued. "I don't think it's a big factor." (It didn't help Trump that the group had earlier spent an hour listening to consumer advocate Ralph Nader on this very subject.)

How about moving toward a flat tax or a national sales tax? "We have a system that's working pretty well, and big changes can do big harm," Trump answered. There were more expressions of dismay from the audience.

What's wrong with the two-party system, someone else wanted to know. "I don't think anything is wrong with it," Trump answered, "though having a viable third party is important." Why was not clear.

The rest of Trump's comments were equally vacuous. He promised to fix America's trade deficit: "I do know something about negotiating." How would he save Social Security and Medicare? "You have to put some money aside, call it rainy day money." He refused to give any indication of who he would turn to for foreign policy advice: "We'd get the best people, the top talent."

The verdict of many of the ARP leaders I spoke to after the teleconference ended was plain. "He doesn't know what he's talking about, and he doesn't know who we are," said Kathleen Hopkins, the group's communications director. "He killed himself with us," said Charles Riggs. Rick Simon, a Reform Party candidate for George Brown's old seat in Congress, said, "I thought Trump was a lot of bad answers and empty answers. On three of our core issues: reducing the debt, he didn't care; campaign finance reform, he said he likes buying politicians; and corporate welfare, he said he doesn't see a problem."

So what did they think Trump was doing, arranging the teleconference and seeking their attention? "Being Trump," said Muga.

A clear tip-off to the ARP's real sympathies came in the special convention issue of its monthly newsletter, which featured a two-and-a-half page reprint of Bruce Shapiro's article in Salon News touting a possible Weicker candidacy. The day after Trump bombed, Weicker got two standing ovations from the audience, and though the crowd didn't applaud everything he said, it was clear that they had a solid and realistic sense that he was the best they were going to get.

This is clearly crunch time for the former Connecticut governor. Before he addressed the convention, he spent an hour with the ARP executive committee, reviewing the ballot access laws for all 50 states and weighing his options. In a handful of states, including California, the deadline for declaring any intentions is little more than a month away.

Dean Barkley, Ventura's campaign chairman, had flown in from Minnesota to try to move Weicker closer to getting in the race. After meeting with him in private, Barkley told me, "It was definitely worthwhile for me to be here," implying that Weicker was getting closer to a run. Tom D'Amore, Weicker's longtime lieutenant, seemed to concur. "You could call that speech he just gave a trial stump speech, even though it wasn't planned that way," he told me. "I've never seen him this interested."

Will Weicker give up the chance to relax, make good money, enjoy his seven children and seven grandchildren, all for what would be an uphill, if not quixotic, fight for the nomination of a party that can barely hold itself together? Will he risk his legacy of fighting the good fight -- Watergate, health-care research, opposing the religious right, getting jailed to protest apartheid? These are subjects, he told the ARPers, that weigh heavily on his mind.

Still, Weicker laid out a respectable agenda for any national candidate, calling for federal funding to smooth out inequality in educational opportunity, a ban on concealed weapons and automatic firearms, debt reduction before tax cuts, new investments in poor children and in community health care -- and specifically rejecting restrictions on choice, efforts to bring prayer into schools and gimmicks like term limits.

Personally, I wonder if there is enough edge to this package to attract the support of disaffected voters. Weicker is not a populist in most senses of the word, and while his commitment to using government to alleviate suffering and promote the general welfare is real, he makes no sweeping calls for change. Maybe, just maybe, his intense commitment to principle and to political independence per se would be enough to break through the political haze. That, plus an endorsement from the country's only Reform governor?

"This is a very complex puzzle with a lot of moving parts," says Weicker advisor D'Amore. "It needs some glue, and that's a candidate." He's right. If Weicker decided to jump in, a lot of pieces would fall into place, and the tattered crowd of political independents now searching for an address not marked with a cross would have a home.

The Reform Party race would then become one pitting an organized minority -- the Buchanan Brigades and their Perotbot allies -- against a far less organized majority -- the millions of political independents who are socially liberal. And while Buchanan would start with a big advantage, the election is still so fluid that anything could happen.

Which brings up the only funny political anecdote of the weekend, which came from Jack Gargan, the embattled chairman-elect of the Reform Party, who won the hearts of the press back in July with an acceptance speech that jokingly played on his fondness for pool, motorcycles and "the ladies."

As the top representative of the party, he said, "Every chance I get to spread the Reform name, I say yes. So when I was invited a few weeks ago to a naturists' meeting, I said yes, thinking that it had something to do with the environment.

"When I drove up, I saw it was a gated community, which should have told me something. Well, before I had driven in two blocks I knew: I was in a nudist colony!

"I was in a panic. As I parked my car at the meeting hall, right near the side entrance, I could hear the person at the mike already beginning my introduction. Well, I decided, when you're in Rome, you do as the Romans do. Backstage, I quickly pulled off my clothes, and, in deference to my audience, strode out there as naked as a jaybird.

"Imagine how I felt when I saw that, in deference to me, they were all fully dressed."

The conventioneers roared with laughter. Unlike Nader, Trump and Weicker, here's a guy who really knows how to spin a yarn.

Gargan had this crowd in the palm of his hand. Somehow, after rocking everyone back in their chairs with his story he turned serious, and insisted to the audience that he would rebuild the Reform Party on a more democratic, grass-roots foundation come Jan. 1, when his term actually begins. Promising big changes, he called on them to come back home to Reform.

With their clothes on.

By Micah L. Sifry

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