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The Taj Mahal of Debt : TRUMP Surviving at the Top by Donald J. Trump with Charles Leerhsen (Random House: $21.95; 236 pp., illustrated ; 0-394-57597-0)

September 02, 1990|John Rothchild | Rothchild is the author of "A Fool and His Money: The Odyssey of an Average Investor," published by Viking in 1988.

Why couldn't Donald Trump quit while he was ahead? He already owned Trump's Castle, Trump Tower, Trump Plaza and Trump Parc, and all of them "great deals," so what did he need with the disastrous Taj Mahal of Debt? Why build another casino?

For that matter, why write another book?

But, alas, he did write another book, "Trump: Surviving at the Top," which is another kind of great deal, ranking right up there with "Vanna Speaks." It came out in New York the very week that Trump's lenders in New Jersey were working overtime to stave off the imminent bankruptcy of the great "survivor of success" himself, now saddled with the Taj Majal of Debt.

The title alone, "Surviving at the Top," is so perversely marvelous that there ought to be a contest to invent others that could equal it. Here are a few candidates: Marie Antoinette's "Keeping My Head," Achilles' "Recovering From a Hamstring Injury," Gen. Custer's "Outfoxing the Enemy" and Jean Claude Duvalier's "President for Life."

Have you seen the cover? There's the celestial Trump, floating in the clouds like a Tiepolo angel and flipping an apple into the air. The apple is supposed to represent New York, so you get the idea that Trump has New York in the palm of his hand, and the expression on his face says: "I've made it, you schmucks, and too bad about you."

Compare this celestial Trump on the cover of the new book to the one on the cover of the first book--"Trump: The Art of the Deal"--where the man appears to be sitting in a window, slightly elevated but within sight of the ground--and you realize how far Trump has risen in his own estimation, even in the short space of three years.

Compare the text of the new book to that of the old (there's a different ghostwriter this time) and you'll notice an obvious increase in the employment of flattering adjectives, such as: "dazzling trophy" (Trump's yacht), "fabulous structure" (his Plaza hotel), "marvelous facility" (a Trump casino), "jewel-encrusted casino" (another Trump plaything), "the magnificent Taj Mahal" (the Trump Taj Mahal), the "best airline of its kind" (the Trump shuttle), "adoring crowds," "huge talent" and "celebrity-studded events."

Under the circumstances, the Trump books have a definite new appeal in the humor category, which is how I would market them if I were Random House or Warner, right alongside Dave Barry. Throughout, there are funny quotes, such as: "Bankers now come to me to ask if I might be interested in borrowing their money. They know a safe bet"; or "I'm going to be building when everybody else has gone bust"; or Trump's advice to Mike Tyson: "Stay out of investments in real- estate deals and tax shelters."

Another rewarding way to read Trump is to study both volumes simultaneously. This, I found, gives many clues as to what has happened to Trump to drive him toward insolvency.

In Trump's initial memoir from three years ago, he was nearly all business: haggling, niggling, finding the good deals that would make him rich. In the photo section of the first book, there are two pages of Trump appearing with various "hot people," such as Herschel Walker and the Reagans, but seven pages of Trump's marvelous buildings. This more or less indicates where Trump's priorities lay: seven-to-two, assets over celebrities.

In "Surviving at the Top," photos of Trump buildings have been reduced to three pages, while there are 10 pages of him standing with Hulk Hogan, the Muppets, Michael Jackson, Don Johnson, George Bush, Sugar Ray Leonard, Benazir Bhutto, Mike Wallace and Mike Tyson, whom Trump describes as "more than just a great boxer . . . one of the most talked-about people in the world. "

Judging by the photo ratio, you begin to suspect that keeping up with investments has not been as interesting to Trump as keeping up with talked-about people, which seems to have become the man's real full-time job.

Should Trump personally welcome Kitty Dukakis to the Plaza Hotel? Should he retaliate against a major designer, whom he once helped with a substance-abuse problem and who has snubbed Trump's latest fashion show? Should he lend his helicopter to the Duchess of York? Should he refuse to shake Mick Jagger's hand after Jagger has hogged a press conference at one of Trump's casinos? Should he let Time magazine put him on the cover? Should he tolerate Frank Sinatra's boorish behavior at a nightclub?

These are only a few of the many social issues that demand Trump's attention in "Surviving at the Top." "Fame is a kind of drug," he observes, "one that is way too powerful for most people to handle." You can't doubt that he's been handling it full-time after you've read Chapter 4, entitled "Life at the Top," where we're let in on the challenges of Trump's schedule. Several days of it are excerpted here:

9 a.m. Learns that he will be honored at a Police Athletic League dinner.

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