Presidential Campaign

A look back at Trump’s first run

Donald Trump, Jesse Ventura, 2016
Getty Images

It was a fascinating campaign swing. There was “The Tonight Show” and Michael Bolton. There was a reception in a swank hotel where those attending stuffed food in their pockets and where two guys hired escorts to be their dates in order to appear classy. The next day, there was a museum event and a Tony Robbins pay-for-play, pump-it-up event complete with pyrotechnics that we in the media watched to see if they would ignite the candidate’s hair on fire.

It was 1999, and Donald Trump was running for president, sort of, in what now can be cast as his dress rehearsal for the current effort. Almost all that he has showed in 2015 was very clear during those few months of 1999.

Few paid attention then.

In 1999, Trump quit the Republican Party to join the Reform Party and seek that party’s presidential nomination. As he used to say back then about women around the world, he clearly believed “he had a shot” at the nomination — and he just may have.

{mosads}Trump formed an exploratory committee, flooded talk shows, took a high-profile “campaign swing” to California and vowed to spend $100 million to win not just the Reform Party nomination, but “the whole megillah.”

I remember it quite well. Because as I was sitting in his office in Trump Tower interviewing him before his decision, he said that he liked me so much that he turned to Roger Stone, his political consigliere, and said, “Let’s make him White House press secretary when we win.”

And he never even asked to see my birth certificate.

We both knew it was hooey, but it framed the Trump barnstorm that — true to Trump’s words — made other campaigns seem dull and showed the blueprint of how he would run today.

For example, speaking to a select group of high-paying VIPs after appearing at the Tony Robbins event, he was asked his approach to politics. “In business and in life, people want to hear straight talk,” he replied. “We’re tired of being bulls—ed by these moron politicians.” The audience was delighted then, as many are now.

He also was blunt in classifying women. Noting how I had covered various Bill Clinton scandals, he opined about the women involved in those stories as “You have some beauties in that deal.”

He was more kind to then-fiancee Melania Kauss, as she passed out pizza to reporters on his private jet. “Pretty incredible, right?” Trump asked, his face in a broad smile. “She’s a beauty, and it’s not just here,” he said as he pointed to his face. “It’s the inner beauty, too.”

That said, his brow furrowed even more than usual when I then began speaking to her in her native language. For Trump, it was a preview of his default position: actually going silent when realizing he did not understand something.

To put things in perspective: The Reform Party was a big deal then and its nomination worth snaring. The outgrowth of Ross Perot’s successes in 1992 and 1996, the party was on all 51 ballots and had money from the Federal Election Commission — key ingredients in winning the whole megillah.

Among those rumored to have looked at its nomination were talk show host Oprah Winfrey — whom Trump said he would have like as his running mate — actor Warren Beatty, actress Cybill Shepherd and conservative Republican commentator Pat Buchanan, who had run for the GOP nomination twice before.

There were backstories to his run. He was pushing a new book, “The America We Deserve.” Additionally, supporters of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who won as a Reform Party candidate, had encouraged Trump to enter the race, in part as a stalking horse. Ventura turned to Trump after former independent Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr. dithered on Ventura’s suggestion. That motivated Trump, who held a grudge against Weicker for blocking his plans to build a casino in Bridgeport in 1994 and launched a war of words that saw Weicker label Trump a “dirtbag” and Trump refer to Weicker as “a fat slob who couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”

Trump entered the race in October and gained a great deal of media attention as a credible alternative to Buchanan. He won the California Reform Party primary and then proclaimed that he could run the United States. “I understand this stuff,” he said. “I understand good times and I understand bad times. I mean, why is a politician going to do a better job than I am?”

As for rival Buchanan’s hypothesis that Nazi Germany posed no direct threat to the United States, Trump said, “Look, he’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays, it’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”

In response, Buchanan said he would not engage in name-calling exchanges, but made a thinly veiled attack against Trump, saying: “I don’t believe the Reform Party nomination can be bought, and I don’t believe the presidency can be bought.”

In the end, Trump quit the race because he concluded that the Reform Party was self-destructing and could not provide the “support a candidate needs to win.” (This was his quote in a press release and later on TV). He also said that since Ventura, his ally, had left the party, the Reform Party was being taken over by Buchanan.

He also said, in regards to running again, that “in a number of years, I might consider it” — so we were warned!

Today, Buchanan — who did win the 2000 Reform Party nomination — praises some of Trump’s positions and declares him the favorite to win the Republican Party nomination.

Despite Buchanan’s confidence, it is not certain Trump is going to get the whole megillah this time. However, just in case, this is a reminder of his promise. After all, Mr. Trump, as you like to repeatedly say, “a deal is a deal.”

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.

Tags 2000 presidential campaign 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican primary Donald Trump Jesse Ventura Pat Buchanan

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