Take Donald Trump seriously? Truth be told, I’m struggling. Maybe you are too.
I still remember — vividly — a day in February 2000 when I covered Trump’s visit to St. Louis as he was contemplating a third-party bid for the White House. He flew in on his Boeing 727 with his name emblazoned in gold on the fuselage and the framed Renoir inside.
The minute his foot hit the tarmac, he was all showbiz — big talk, giant gestures, seemingly serious one minute, joking the next. Back and forth it went all day, like someone flipping channels with the remote. He’d insist that he was in the race for the nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Then he was saying this:
“It doesn’t seem like I am.”
But it didn’t matter. He was a hoot. We were having fun. Hey, it was Donald Trump!
In the middle of a speech that night, he asked: “By the way, has anybody heard I’m running for president? Has anybody heard?”
Was that a declaration? Reporters jerked their heads up from their notepads. The question hung in midair, and then a few folks in the audience laughed. Trump just rolled on without saying another word about it.
An aide cleared things up that night. The boss was joking.
Of course he was.
At a fundraising reception that day, Trump told potential contributors that they could ask him anything.
“You can just shoot,” he said. “You can ask vicious questions, sexually oriented questions, whatever you want to ask me.”
A hand shot up. “Do you like East Coast or West Coast girls?”
The man with the orange-fizz hair wasn’t married at the time, and he weighed right in.
“I like ‘em all,” he proclaimed. “Even the ones in the middle too.”
Yes, 15 years have passed, but so many things seem the same. For instance, back then he made headlines for once calling former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker a “fat slob.” Republican Pat Buchanan was a Nazi lover. Democrat Bill Bradley, Trump said, was “almost Marxist.”
Ring a bell?
Even motivational speaker Tony Robbins was mystified. For $100,000 that night in St. Louis, he had invited Trump to speak to one of his audiences. As he spoke, Robbins told reporters that he wasn’t sure if Trump was running either. But he added: “He’s running the greatest ad campaign in history. He’s having the time of his life.”
Ego trip or run for the White House? Somehow, it didn’t matter. A few days after his visit, he backed out of the race altogether and went on to brand the Reform Party “a total mess.”
On Tuesday night this week, six weeks before the first major presidential contest in Iowa, Trump still had people guessing. At the GOP debate, he seemed to finally settle one question once and for all. He said he’s running for the Republican nomination and was “totally committed.” An independent run was out.
Such talk about potential disloyalty used to be political suicide. Not with Trump, who just a few days before the debate was hinting that he might go third party all over again.
But if Trump seems all over the place all the time, the voters often are too.
On this date in 2007, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was leading Mike Huckabee in the polls in the GOP presidential pack just weeks before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. On this date in 2011, Newt Gingrich had a solid lead over Mitt Romney.
Back in 2003 at this time, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt were battling for the Democratic lead in Iowa, a caucus race that John Kerry won going away.
The mad, mad flirtation with all things Trump has lingered a while now. But things will soon turn serious. Maybe in a newly scary world, Trump’s bravado will continue to sell. Or maybe voters will do what they’ve done time after time in recent cycles, and that’s look around for an adult in the room.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio may get a second look. Or maybe it’ll be Jeb Bush, who has struggled mightily in the wake of the Trump tornado. Bush finally connected with an upper cut Tuesday night when he said Trump is a “chaos candidate” and would be a “chaos president.”
I’ve seen that chaos up close. Soon, though, it may be time to start taking this guy seriously.