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Editor’s Note: Samuel Abt was a longtime sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He wrote biographies of Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong during his 30-plus year career covering the sport.
Having been a newspaper man for decades before I retired, I wonder if I rank as an enemy of the people and especially of Donald Trump. I hope not. Once we were more than friendly as he asked for my advice. Yes, if just for part of an afternoon in 1989, I belonged to the Trump inner circle.
The reason was an erroneous remark I made before the start of the inaugural Tour de Trump, a 10-stage, 837-mile race on the East Coast, which he was bankrolling for $750,000.
Bicycle races, I noted in a report from the start in Albany, New York, usually were named for the territory they traversed, not for the real estate mogul behind them. What’s the matter? “When [the name] was initially stated, I practically fell out of my seat,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? I will get killed in the media if I use that name. You absolutely have to be kidding.’”
However, according to Billy Packer, an impresario of the race with Mike Plant, Trump changed his mind within 20 seconds, (Packer initially planned to call it the Tour de Jersey before coming to his senses.)
So Tour de Trump it was and its namesake was thinking big.
“It can go longer, it can go further,” he said in an interview with me. “It can start in New York and go out to San Francisco, throughout the country. I really feel that when I attach my name to something, I have to make that something successful. My name is probably my greatest asset and I have some nice assets.”
We were talking in Albany because I had remarked incautiously to somebody that the Tour de Trump peloton would be surrounded by many more cars than even the Tour de France provided. That somebody reported my remark to somebody and eventually Trump heard about it. Cars are expensive to rent and run, he said, and his secretary called me to arrange a talk with the boss about how many cars protected the Tour de France.
By that time, I had remembered that the Tour de France had thousands of gendarmes blocking every side road into its riders’ path and the Tour de Trump had only its envelope of accompanying cars. I corrected myself to Trump, who was gracious, even a touch humble.
“I have a tendency to overdo sometimes,” he admitted. “We have a bigger production staff than a lot of people would have. I’d rather have too many cars and good circulation than not enough where things don’t work out.
“I’m not guided totally by the dollar, despite what a lot of people would think. I really am guided more by what I think is good, what can happen. And I think, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons I have become successful: the fact that I don’t necessarily just go by the pure bottom line.”
Standing outside his limousine during part of the opening ceremonies and later at a whirlwind series of meetings with state legislators, I interviewed him for a couple of hours. Then he was off to his helicopter to return to Manhattan and I was out of his inner circle. We did not connect the next year, his last before the race became the Tour DuPont.
But I saw Trump again in person in 1989, and only ever since on television, on the stage into Baltimore, where I lived for many years. Knowing that sullen city and its high unemployment rate well, I was curious how Trump would be received when he arrived at the Inner Harbor with his yacht. Not his yacht exactly — it belonged to a Middle East influence peddler and had been leased to Trump, who, of course, attached his name to it.
The Trump Princess, I think it was called, and it was huge by that era’s standards. The stage organizers had reportedly insisted he bring it to town as a touch of class.
So there it sat at dockside as guests trooped aboard for a cocktail party. Watching it all was a large crowd of men in wifebeaters, whom I took to be former workers at the immense Bethlehem Steel plant, now mostly closed. What would they think of Trump?
They loved him! Not for Baltimore to repeat the protests in New Paltz, New York, where signs of “Die Yuppy Scum” flourished. In Baltimore, the men in their undershirts loved him! Adored him! Hung on his every word!
In short, the crowd connected with Trump and his glamour.
He arrived to their cheers and applause, waved indulgently and strolled up the gangplank. The crowd stayed around all afternoon, ignoring the race stage to gawk at the yacht and cheer again whenever Trump appeared on deck.
It was stunning. If he ever goes into politics, I often said afterward, he’ll be a tremendous success.
Few believed me. The real estate guy? they scoffed. The casino guy?
Nobody called him the bicycle race guy.