Donald Trump is more complicated than the bully portrayed in a new documentary
DORAL, Fla. — Donald Trump showed up in person at the golf tournament here, and, as a subject, at the Miami International Film Festival.
He was at the World Golf Championships event taking meetings, holding a press conference, chatting up fans, walking around the sprawling Marriott-run hotel and the Blue Monster course that abuts it.
By June 1, he is planning to take ownership of the resort, once so spiffy and cool but now looking kind of tired. He is buying four of the resort's five courses and all of its nearly 700 rooms at the fire-sale price of $150 million. He'll put much more than that back into it.
At the front lobby, right behind the famous portrait of J. Willard Marriott and his son Bill that you see at every Marriott, there's now a large photograph of Trump, all smiley. (What teeth!) By this time next year, the Marriotts, the portrait and the company, will be out. I'm betting spiffy is going to make a big comeback here. You bet against Trump at your own peril. Trump, by the way, recently endorsed Willard Mitt Romney, who was named for J. Willard Marriott and who until recently served on the Marriott board. Coincidence? Probably, but that won't stop the conspiracy theorists.
Trump's appearance at the film festival, in the documentary "You've Been Trumped," has less promotional value. The film, directed by a former BBC reporter named Anthony Baxter who lives in Montrose, Scotland, is about Trump's construction of a links golf course outside Aberdeen. The film is about the uncivil war between Trump and several locals who live on land abutting the course and have no use for it.
This is not a balanced, nuanced piece of reporting and filmmaking, and it doesn't pretend to be. The poster for it features a painting of Trump — no smile — his face covered in dollar bills.
I saw the film Friday night, when Baxter was there, taking questions from the audience and explaining how he came to be arrested by local police after a manager of the Trump International Golf Links made a trespassing complaint against him. He was handcuffed and detained for four hours. The charges were eventually dropped, and Baxter received a police apology for his rough treatment in their hands.
Trump couldn't possibly have any use for this film, of course, but Rosie O'Donnell liked it, and so did I. On the movie's website, there's a link to Baxter's appearance on "The Rosie Show." I watched the movie with keen interest and loved the interspersed clips from the beautiful 1983 movie "Local Hero." Keen interest because in 2007, when I was writing a story about Trump's interest in golf and golf courses, I walked all over Trump's Scottish property. This was before a single bulldozer had touched the land, a series of towering dunes so windswept and rugged it took your breath away. I have played eight or nine rounds of golf with Trump and, when I was reporting my story, spent hours and hours talking to him, in person and over the phone. For a while there, when I was useful to him, I was in Trump's life. I was eager to learn of Baxter's experience.
The Trump that appears in Baxter's film is a bully and a blowhard, and he comes off the same way in my friend Mike Tollin's ESPN film "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" (Trump! At least, that's Mike's considered view.) I don't doubt that Trump can be a bully and a blowhard, but I have a different take on him. I found Trump to be smart, open and weirdly charismatic.
But the thing I liked best about him is that he didn't take himself too seriously, or not overly so. When I was doing my reporting on Trump, he had an ugly, ongoing feud with Rosie O'Donnell. Three days a week or so there was a "Page Six" item about their Seinfeldian war over nothing. I said to Trump, "This thing with Rosie, you're loving it, aren't you?" He said, "Michael." (If you meet him and you can help him, he will learn your name and use it often.) "Rose O'Donnell is the gift that keeps giving." In other words, she kept his name in the paper, and he likes that. More recently, I've abandoned my old view. I now think Trump takes himself very seriously. You've heard him talk about running for president and questioning Obama's birth records. There was no wink in any of that, not that I saw. He used to talk to me about golf-course construction as a hobby, the way gardening is for other people. Now I think golf has become something more for him.
I think, for sure, he's interested in creating more wealth for himself and his family. I think he's restless by nature. He's a good golfer, and if he had to break 80 with a pencil in hand, I bet he could do it. He's drawn to the game for competitive reasons. But more than anything, I think his golfing motivation is rooted in his desire to have his five-letter surname, so crowded with heavy consonants, find a place of permanence in this impermanent world. He has built some good courses, most particularly (opinion alert) the one in West Palm Beach, designed by Jim Fazio, and the second of his two courses in Bedminster, N.J., designed by Jim's son, Tommy Fazio. I can't imagine any of his courses getting the thing he most wants, a men's U.S. Open. (He has told me I'm wrong about this.) I can imagine his course in Scotland getting a Ryder Cup. And if that happens, anybody who ever looks up the results of, say, the 2034 Ryder Cup will see the site right next to the winning score: Trump International Golf Links. That's one way to get sealed in the book of life.
Trump is a complicated man, much more so than the cartoon figure he is often portrayed to be, including the Trump of "You've Been Trumped." His father, Fred Trump, got rich building and managing working-class apartment buildings in New York City, but Trump made his mark building for the sparkly people. Trump's late mother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, grew up in a wee croft house in Scotland. Trump worshipped his older brother, Fred, whom Trump described to me as a brilliant athlete and a dashing man with a bad drinking problem. He died at age 43, and Trump himself does not drink at all, not even a sip of the vodka he sells. There are forces at work in the man, and I think those forces are showing up in the course he is building in Scotland. It is scheduled to open in July. In the pictures, it looks gorgeous.
I'm sympathetic to Anthony Baxter's cause, and to the tone of his film. If reporters aren't going to stand up for the common man, who is? In recent years, Trump has spoken about one of his Scottish neighbors, one Michael Forbes, in a truly vulgar fashion, and he has paid for it. Why Trump didn't try one of his patented charm offensives with him, I do not know. Trump knows various members of the Forbes family of the New Jersey horse country. He could have brought Forbeses together and turned it into a party, although Trump does have an ongoing feud with Forbes the magazine for (he claims) underestimating his wealth. Trump loves the fight. I actually think he needs it.
Baxter lives in Montrose, on the East Coast of Scotland, and the producer of his labor-of-love film, Richard Phinney, was an active member of the celebrated, rugged ancient links of the Royal Montrose Golf Club. Montrose represents everything that is great about Scottish golf. The course was built by shifting winds. It doesn't exist to make money. Anyone can make arrangements to play it. It's affordable. Golf at Montrose, and throughout Scotland, is communal. The course fits with the land and with the citizenry. And compared to, say, Augusta National or any of the Trump courses, it requires almost nothing to maintain. A year's membership at Montrose, 130 pounds ($204), is less than one round of golf for a local golfer playing Trump's course. The weekend non-resident green fee at Trump's new place is 200 pounds ($313). On the website, that term of golf is listed as the "greens fee." There really shouldn't be an "s." The course is the green, and the correct term is green fee. But Trump is approaching this thing as an American, and American golfers often speak of paying a greens fee.
Trump's not really into the whole public thing, even though he has built public courses, like his one in Rancho Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles. I told Trump how I liked the public right-of-way through that course that surfers used to get to the beach. Trump was totally dismissive.
What Trump is doing in Scotland is not really part of traditional Scottish golf. He's building a golf course with a financial incentive, putting his name on it and hoping to attract a big-time event. Old Tom Morris wasn't thinking about any of that when he schlepped over to Machrihanish from St. Andrews to have a look and lay out a course.
Trump has hired a very nice man to make extensive renovations at Doral, Gil Hanse, who is moving his wife and teenage daughter to Brazil to build the Olympic course there. Hanse is skillful on a bulldozer, a do-it-yourselfer, even though he is part of the modern minimalist movement, at least in theory. He'll surely have to move loads of dirt at Doral to make it interesting.
Hanse was an unlikely hire for Trump. He's as understated as Trump is loud. But the Tour liked the work that Hanse did, with Brad Faxon, on TPC Boston, where the September FedEx event is played. To me, the Boston course looks like another way-difficult, way-expensive American golf course that's hard to walk, but don't go by me. My tastes are quirky. I like the North Palm Beach Municipal course more than PGA National. I mean, it's not even close.
Tommy Fazio moved a tremendous amount of dirt to build the beautiful Quail Valley golf course in Vero Beach, Fla., but when he first drew plans for the Trump course in Scotland he knew what he had: true linksland. The most incredible duneland I've ever seen, anyway. It didn't need much, and Fazio didn't plan to move any dirt. The routing plans he submitted to Trump were simple and brilliant, but in the end, Trump hired a semi-local, the Englishman Martin Hawtree, whose family has been building golf courses in the British Isles for 100 years.
In 2007, after I had played all the Trump courses — and he's added a bunch since then — Trump called and asked me which of his courses I liked best.
"Scotland," I said, blurting out my answer. Trump will do that. He gets you involved emotionally. At that point, the Scottish course was nothing but an idea, and the golf world did not know the name Michael Forbes, star of "You've Been Trumped."
"That is a very interesting answer," Trump said. "You did not say a course, but a property. What you are saying is that my land in Scotland has the potential to be the site of the greatest seaside golf course in the world."
Of course, I wasn't saying that, but I was thinking it, and that's part of the genius of the man. Maybe the course will be wonderful. Maybe it will be impossible to play and more difficult to walk. I don't know. As for Trump, he's dropped the word "seaside." Now he's saying that the Scottish course has the potential to be the greatest course in the world, period. There are all sorts of people, Aberdeenshire locals and other annoyed persons, in "You've Got Trumped" who couldn't care less, but they had a great time playing a miniature golf hole where the cup was Donald Trump's mouth. The Scots have a cruel sense of humor. That's why they like golf so much.