Politics & Policy

Needing to Be President

(Scott Olson/Getty)
Some call it “passion,” but it’s much worse than that.

Walter Annenberg, son of a very successful gangster and newspaper distributor who made his bones back in the day when those two occupations were synonymous, inherited the Daily Racing Form and the Philadelphia Inquirer when his father went away on tax charges. He built his publishing interests into a phenomenally successful enterprise — he had the foresight to launch TV Guide at just the moment it was needed — and ended up so wealthy that he gave away not millions but billions of dollars to good causes. He was, for a while, my neighbor in Lower Merion, Pa., though in spite of our both being newspapermen, our paths never crossed; strangely, I had hardly any nonagenarian billionaire Nixon cronies in my social circle at all.

I have always admired Annenberg, and to some extent his father, Moe, as well: Walter was a devil-may-care young man who quit Wharton to chase skirts (one of which was draped upon the person of Ginger Rogers), while Moe was an immigrant and self-made man who settled disputes with baseball bats and read Spinoza in his spare time. (Christopher Ogden relates many amusing anecdotes about the two.) The newspaper racket will, alas, never see their likes again. The disappointing thing about Walter Annenberg was that he spent so much of his time and energy trying to buy his way in to an attenuated social caste whose good opinion wasn’t worth his time. (If you own a major newspaper and still feel the need to rent status, you don’t know what to do with a daily broadsheet.) He could afford to live among the Biddles and Dorrances and Penns — indeed, he could have bought and sold all those old Main Line clans many times over — but he was always the felon’s son, the Jew, the arriviste whose money came from TV Guide. They never forgot, and he never forgave. Eventually, he leased himself an embassy and was installed as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He was not obviously well qualified to occupy that diplomatic aerie, but he thrived in the position, and added a KBE to the slightly dented name his father bequeathed him.

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It is perhaps difficult for us today to appreciate just how alienated the old WASP establishment could make a Jew feel in that era, especially a very successful one. An old friend of mine who was as much of a Main Line WASP as it was possible for a Jew who fled Berlin in the 1930s to be — if you were shooting an advertisement for Brooks Brothers, you’d tell the models: “Try to be that guy!” — used to invite me to lunch at Philadelphia’s Union League and each time, over snapper soup, he’d do a little comedy routine: “This club is going to hell,” he’d say in his radio announcer’s voice. “They let Democrats join now. Can you imagine? And I hear they even let . . . Jews in.” Full-throated laughs at our table, nervous titters at the tables around us. Like Walter Annenberg, my friend was very successful, happy, and a much-loved member of our community. But he had his memories, and not all of them were of being welcomed with open arms. For him, the occasional half-bitter joke was enough; Walter Annenberg needed the president’s endorsement.

Donald Trump needs the presidency itself.

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Or at least to be considered a serious candidate for it. Trump isn’t a Jewish refugee but the heir to a splendid New York City real-estate fortune, though he sometimes disingenuously suggests that he comes from modest origins, that he is a “boy from Queens,” e.g.: “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” (Classiest boy from Queens ever, obviously.) But he is on a quest similar to Annenberg’s: to be something more than a rich guy. Trump has made many attempts at this, none of them so elegant as Annenberg’s, publishing dopey books under his name and playing circus monkey on a reality-television show.

What he is seeking is significance.

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Trump is not, despite endless loud paeans to himself, a very significant builder. There aren’t going to be books written 50 years hence about the architectural vision of Donald J. Trump or his influence on the urban environment. New Yorkers roll their eyes at Trump properties, which are seen as the domain of vulgar nouveaux riches and foreigners who don’t know any better. (In 2013, there was a record sale at Trump Tower when the Mexican billionaire Carlos Peralta sold his condo to the Japanese investor Kesao Fukae, perhaps answering Trump’s much earlier question: “Who knows how much the Japs will pay for Manhattan property these days?”) When Forest City Ratner built Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan, the city and the architectural press were abuzz with debate about the controversial design of what was at the time the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere, and the same excitement accompanied the newly built 432 Park Avenue, now New York’s second-tallest building and its highest rooftop. Trump once proposed to build the world’s tallest building, in Chicago, but was forced to scale back his plans and, in typical Trump fashion, ended up getting sued by Deutsche Bank for defaulting on a loan. (The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat puts the Trump World Tower in New York at No. 33 in the ranking of tallest residential buildings.) His often-troubled casino projects are not highly regarded, and his residential projects are mocked for their unimaginative and tacky attempts to cover every square inch in mahogany paneling or marble.

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There’s more than buildings, of course. Trump bragged that Trump Mortgage — anybody remember Trump Mortgage? — soon would be the No. 1 home-lender in the United States; it is defunct. Trump vodka is no longer on the shelves, though there is Trump-label vodka served at some Trump properties. The Trump board game, the GoTrump.Com search engine, the New Jersey Generals and the United States Football League in which they played, Trump University, which lives on only in fraud investigations . . . none has exactly set the world on fire.

Trump’s ravening is, from a certain point of view, understandable. What is less understandable is the presidential fever that has gripped such doughty men as Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

Trump’s ravening is, from a certain point of view, understandable. What is less understandable is the presidential fever that has gripped such doughty men as Governor Scott Walker and Governor Bobby Jindal, both of whom have long and distinguished records in public life and both of whom have, envying Trump’s celebrity-driven summer romance with poll respondents, attempted to imitate him, with Jindal spitting schoolboy taunts at his rivals and Walker denouncing as unseemly the president’s plan to meet with Chinese leaders whom Walker himself not too long ago ventured to China to meet. Trump’s daft say-anything approach has at least this much to its credit: It has helped to identify those among his rivals who also are willing to say anything to advance in the polls. This is pathetic in a business mogul, but absolutely perplexing in a governor, as though a life left unfulfilled by a succession of political offices were going to be satisfied by the addition of yet another political office. This silly tendency has constitutional scholar Ted Cruz refusing to say whether as president he would order the deportation of U.S. citizens, something no president, Congress, or justice of the Supreme Court has any legitimate legal power to do. That is “the question every mainstream media liberal journalist wants to ask,” Senator Cruz scornfully told Megyn Kelly when she inquired. It’s an easy question, and the answer is: “No. Have you lost your mind?” Egad.

With Cruz, Jindal, and Walker sidelined by yahoo fever, Jeb Bush being Jeb Bush, Ben Carson a wonderful and brilliant man who is entirely unequipped for the presidency, Kasich, Pataki, and Gilmore fossils that nobody wanted to dig up, Huckabee a less interesting if less embarrassing television personality than Trump, Graham and Christie . . . well, ugh—then Rubio, Paul, Perry, and Fiorina emerge as the more-or-less credible grownups.

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Rubio’s record on immigration is not to the taste of a Trumpkin electorate; Paul’s libertarianism is, as I predicted, a hard sell; Fiorina did not command American forces at the Battle of Trenton or organize the Normandy invasion but still seeks the presidency as an entry-level political job; Perry has the most impressive record in office of any of the candidates but has demonstrated a persistent inability to persuade voters that his Texas model is scalable, and his campaign is at the moment more or less broke.

But none of that is what really hampers these candidates. I have spent at least some time with most of the candidates, and what Perry, Paul, Fiorina, and Rubio really lack isn’t an issue or a slogan or a strategy — it’s that terrifying, insane glint in the eye. Some people call that passion, but it has always seemed to me closer to psychosis. Neither Rick Perry nor Carly Fiorina needs to be president; at times, Rand Paul visibly detests the dog-and-pony-show element of politics. Marco Rubio may harbor a deep desire for the White House, but he is canny enough to know that 2016 is not the end for him. That unspeakable need makes for great candidates and troubled presidents: George H. W. Bush did not need to be president, and Bill Clinton needed it worse than any normal human being can imagine. Bush was a war hero, a deft statesman, and the operational heir to the Reagan legacy; Clinton was a lecherous nobody governor from a backward state without much to say for himself.

But he had the bug.

#related#As I listened to Bobby Jindal’s mile-a-minute stream-of-consciousness scattershot invective on a conference call earlier this week, I could not help but think: This guy has the bug. Cruz has the bug, Walker has the bug, and Trump has a bug of a special carnivorous sort, a whole hive of them. Hillary Rodham Clinton has the bug so bad she married the bug in human form and gave birth to a bugling daughter.  

Walter Annenberg had the bug, and he managed it the way certain hard-faced men manage drinking problems: have a few, but never get in the bag. Annenberg had a direct line to more than one president, but he seems to have always felt that he was on the outside looking in. Jindal, Cruz, Walker, et al., relatively young men who have spent much of their lives in elected or appointed office, are on the inside looking in, the burrowing badgers of politics instinctively drawn to some idea of warmth at the core. Trump, channeling Richard Nixon and styling himself the vanquisher of the Establishment, is an outside-looking-in guy in the Annenberg mold. Given the resources at his disposal, a simple change in Trump’s attitude and a bit of wit would have changed his position from outside looking in to outside looking out—and that might have made all the difference.

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