Source : Literary Hub – Meakin Armstrong
MEAKING ARMSTRONG REPORTS FROM DEEP INSIDE OCCUPIED MEDIA
Near the end of the Marla Maples Era, I found myself on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, in the knick-knack crowded office of Donald Trump. He didn’t shake my hand because Donald Trump doesn’t shake hands. Instead, Trump repeated my name once we were introduced. “Meakin,” he said, “I thought I knew every name in the world.”
Almost immediately, an assistant whisked me away from him. The assistant asked my boss and me, “Would you like a tour of the office?”
We crossed the 20 feet of cream-colored wall-to-wall to join the assistant at the wraparound tinted windows above Fifth Avenue. We looked down on the Plaza Hotel’s French Renaissance-style roof, and I noticed that much of that building’s copper work was theater: You were meant to see the elaborate roofline from below. The street was a ribbon of jammed traffic, inching down Fifth Avenue. The green of Central Park was beyond.
My boss, who excelled at the niceties, kept up a stream of polite chatter while I looked out the window: I was the managing editor of Trump Style magazine, and I was in Donald Trump’s office, gawking at Central Park like a tourist. We were there to write an article, and we recorded our interview. Given that I had to transcribe it, I remember our dialogue well. It was also my first professional interview, so I was on high alert.
I recall Trump’s crotch-high wraparound melamine windowsill, which hid the heating vents and was loaded down with statuary and plaques and Lucite objects, most of them congratulating the man for his involvement with real-estate. I especially remember one object among his plastic forest of affirmation: Made of wood, it said, “World’s Greatest Dad.”
“My daughter Ivanka made that,” Trump said from across the room.
My boss kept up the chatter during our brief tour of Trump’s office. We went back to gawking at the view, and she mentioned the restoration of Wollman Skating Rink, which Trump paid for, a few years earlier. Trump grunted something affirmative, meaning, Yes, the view is nice. I, on the other hand, mentioned the Plaza Hotel, just below. I’d forgotten how Trump had paid too much for the building and then sold it at a loss.
With that faux pas, our tour was over. We knew it was over, because the assistant said, “Would you like to sit?” She tour-guided us over to where Trump was, standing by his desk. Above that desk were framed magazine covers, awards, and citations. My boss said some pleasant things about the magazine covers. We remained standing, gazing at the wall.
While we were there to conduct an interview for a magazine, we weren’t exactly journalists. We were, you could say, journalist-adjacent. Our job was to offer the simulacra of objectivity in the form of a magazine article that presented Trump as what we now call a “thought leader” on golf. The article was to go in the back of Trump Style, a biannual distributed to a “carefully selected list of guests” of Trump casinos, condos, and members of the newly opened Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, according to the ghostwritten letter from Donald Trump that appeared in opening pages of the premiere issue.
Trump Style was intended to “reflect the contemporary affluent lifestyle of its audience.” The first issue featured an interview with Rudolph Giuliani and a photo spread of Mar-a-Lago. The horoscope was by Athena Starwoman, a celebrity astrologist. She lived in Trump Tower then, and I was told she was our highest-paid contributor. The advertisements in Trump Style were for McMansions and rich people bric-a-brac. Bentleys were available at a discount from a dealer located in Florida.
Trump Style was considered custom publishing: our employer, New York Times Custom Publishing, produced magazines for hotels and banks, such as Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, US Airways, and KeyBank. While custom publishing is still standard, it can vary in quality: Amtrak has an excellent custom-published magazine called The National. In-flight magazines are also in this group, and some are good, but most are terrible. They are secular versions of the Gideon Bible: You find them in some hotel room (or some waiting room or some airplane seatback) and you read them because you’ve got nothing else to look at.
“At that point, I still assumed Donald Trump, owner of many golf courses, knew a thing or two about golf. There was an embarrassed silence. My boss jangled her bracelets.”
To use today’s language, Trump Style was sponsored content. We worked autonomously from our clients, but we were answerable to them. We were occupied media. We published stories in line with our clients’ brands: For USAir, articles about travel to cities where the airline flew. They flew to Germany, so we said a lot about Germany. But their hub was in Charlotte, NC, so we said a great deal about the Greater Charlotte Area, too.
I was working at NYT Custom Publishing because I desperately needed the money—my student loan payments were $813 a month. I wasn’t an employee, but a no-frills contract worker with a six-month contract that was regularly renewed for several years. I never signed an NDA. I was also working at NYT Custom Publishing because I needed a distraction: My girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up and my optioned screenplay was circling the drain. The head of development at a production company associated with Columbia Pictures had just told me my characters were “too smart.” Nothing was going well. Making everything worse, the super-cool downtown magazine I was supposed to work for went under—before it had even launched.
We were still standing next to Trump and staring at his trophy wall when suddenly, he erupted. “Time, GQ, Playboy. I’m one of the few men who was ever on the cover of Playboy. Those are the awards I got—the mayor’s office proclamation and so on.” He waved his hand over various framed letters, a plaque from the America’s Cup Foundation, a framed award from the Jewish National Fund, and a photo of him with New York society darling JFK Jr. who’d recently died.
We paused to look at the Time cover, from 1989. This was an image from the Ivana Trump Era, when he was forty-something and had shaggy, dark, slightly rebellious hair. He was looking directly at us while he held up an ace of diamonds, as if to say he was beating us at the game of chance.
And then, as though at an art exhibition, we all moved to the image of Trump in 1984, on the cover of GQ. In that shot, Trump had his thumb under his chin; his fingers curled into a near fist. Inappropriately, I thought of Malcolm X and his famous finger to the temple. But here, Trump had a slight smile. The picture is up-close, as though the photographer had been looking for something, but only finding Trump’s chaotic eyebrows. His face is devoid of expression, perhaps due to retouching. He’s like Jay Gatsby, but a Jay Gatsby who doesn’t believe in the green light—or really, any light at all. Next to his face in bold 1980s sans serif font, were the words, SUCCESS: How Sweet It is.
“You guys should get me on the cover of New York Times Magazine,” he said, still looking at the wall.
We weren’t sure if he was serious. My boss made some incoherent, panicked noises. “We don’t work with those people,” she said. I knew she was getting upset. When she got upset, she tended to jangle her bracelets. Her bracelets were jangling up a storm.
“You can try.” He smiled.
My boss didn’t say the people in editorial barely spoke with us. My boss didn’t say we weren’t exactly well-regarded at The New York Times. They respected us so little that we worked in a separate building and our offices were mostly empty. Our division was up for sale. Executives went in and out of closed conference rooms. There were many whispered conversations in hallways.
As if to break the awkward silence, a member of the Trump entourage finally directed us to our seats, placed squarely in front of Trump’s oversized desk. The desk was perhaps the size of a queen-sized bed. It was made of marble and appeared to come from the same quarry as the pink-orange walls and floors of the sharp-elbowed, narrow, public lobby downstairs. Directly behind Trump on the melamine windowsill were dozens of family photos in a variety of frames. His back was to those pictures, meaning they faced us, not him. When we weren’t looking at him, we were looking at his family. Only one photo faced him on his desk. It was of his father, who’d set him up in the business with a multimillion-dollar loan.
Trump’s guest chair was comfortable and placed me next to his trophy wall; beside me was a framed poem, which I want to say was the Desiderata and that he told me was a gift from his father. The Desiderata, that prose poem found in suburban bathrooms throughout the country, begins with the lines,
Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story.
I want to say I commented upon it, and I want to say he claimed it was inspirational, but I could be adding that in for effect. I want this part to be true, but this was the Marla Maples Era—a long time ago, before the World Trade Center fell.
Before we were settled in, a tall bleached blonde woman opened a small folding chair and sat, off to our left. “That’s K.,” Trump said. K. was shadowing Trump, writing down his words for his next memoir. If Trump made a statement such as, “Well, you’ve got to work hard if you’re going to succeed,” K. would scribble notes and stage-whisper, “This is great. This is so great.”
We were there to talk about Tiger Woods. I knew nothing about golf. Aside from miniature golf, I’d been on a golf course once—and that was in high school at midnight, tanked up on marijuana and Olde English 800. To be needlessly specific, I threw up in the sand trap.
“Ok,” the assistant said. “We have 45 minutes, Mr. Trump. You’re set to talk about Tiger Woods.” She closed the door.
He looked at Catherine and asked, “We’re talking about Tiger Woods?”
“We thought your wisdom would be a terrific addition to Trump Style magazine,” she answered.
Actually, we had no idea of why we were supposed to talk about Tiger Woods. This article was for the back of the magazine, where clients said whatever they liked. Normally, the client’s internal PR staff produced that sort of content, but the Trump Organization asked us to do it for them. We weren’t given much direction, except that there was a vague hope of getting Woods associated with Mar-a-Lago. Our job was to help the Trump Organization with a strategic move, to be his PR staff: This is what it’s like when media is occupied.
Trump said, “Oh sure. Tiger Woods. Fabulous player.”
“Do you have advice for Tiger Woods?” I asked. At that point, I still assumed Donald Trump, owner of many golf courses, knew a thing or two about golf. There was an embarrassed silence. My boss jangled her bracelets. Everyone shifted in their seats. I’d not realized we were there to coach him, to make him look good, not ask him to formulate opinions from scratch. Coaching is the job of occupied media, not asking real questions.
Trump finally said, “Work hard. You have to work hard if you’re going to stay successful.”
K. whispered from her folding chair, “This is great. This is so great.”
Trump gained confidence when he saw her approval. He added, “He has to stay on top. He won the Masters, but he’s got a long way to go. A long way.”
My boss asked, “You’re saying, to be like Arnold Palmer, you have to work hard for the long haul?”
Folding-Chair K. whispered enthusiastically.
Trump was going advise Tiger Woods on how to last, over time. This was our article.
My boss asked, “That’s how people become legends? They work hard over time?”
We went from there until I asked, “Have you ever met Tiger Woods?” My boss jangled her bracelets again: I was interrupting the flow and possibly botching my first-ever professional interview because that question was a journalist’s question. Trump may not have met him at all. As someone who was merely journalist-adjacent, I was supposed to know the answer before I ever asked it.
Sponsored content is never about conflict. It’s about solutions. Sponsored content is about heroes who are solving things and making the world a better place—even if they are really building golf courses and ugly buildings. My job, therefore, was to make Donald Trump a hero and a top expert on golf. Someone capable of giving golfing advice to Tiger Woods.
“Journalism isn’t about fussing over consequences of getting anyone upset—when journalists worry about that, they have Trump Style.”
“Oh, of course,” Trump said. “We met at the opening of the Nike store here. The one here in the Tower. Then at the Taj. He came right after he won the Masters. He’s hot as a pistol. Hot as a pistol.”
The recorder was on. My mind wandered. I was at the pistol-hot, gelatinous core of the Trump Organization.
It seems Tiger Woods actually did attend the opening of a café at the Trump Taj Mahal right after winning the Masters. A photo of their encounter was included in our published piece, about which “Trump” wrote,
The next day [Tiger Woods] got into a bit of hot water because he didn’t appear at the Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Celebration at Shea Stadium, which President Clinton had attended. It wasn’t his fault. The fact is, he had only been invited after he had won the Masters, and he already had other commitments. People gave him a lot of grief because he showed up at Donald Trump’s party in Atlantic City, but he didn’t show up at Shea Stadium for the president. But he had made a commitment to me a long time beforehand, and he honored it, which tells you a lot about him.
Trump beat the Clintons, even back then, in the Marla Maples Era.
When the office manager who’d set up the meeting—and who was our main point of contact—opened the door, probably to give a five-minute warning, Trump said to her, “I’ve got The New York Times in here!”
She nodded noncommittally. We weren’t The New York Times. She knew we weren’t The (Real)New York Times because she’d set-up the interview. We were (Putrid) Trump Style, the journalism-adjacent bootlickers. But Trump insisted we were The New York Times, and therefore it must be true. Folding-Chair K. acted impressed. After all, she too was now in the room with The New York Times.
When our time was up, we parted ways, leaving Folding-Chair K. there to transcribe more thoughts of Donald Trump. Back at our (mostly empty) offices that were up for sale, we wrote the piece in first person, from the point of view of Donald Trump, a genre of writing similar to what’s known as a “byline.” By coincidence, I’ve since ended up writing many bylines for clients—but now, I write for futurists and experts on such topics as AI and the blockchain: people who tend to know what they are talking about.
Our byline for Trump Style made Donald Trump humble and likable. We made him sound amazed by the talent of Tiger Woods. When the job was over, I did my best to forget about it. I threw out most of my spare copies of Trump Style and jettisoned it from my mind. Occasionally, other editors greeted me with the phrase, “Meakin… I thought I knew every name in the world.”
In today’s Stormy Daniels/Melania Era, Trump’s skin has taken on the same pink-orange color of his Tower and—judging by the pictures I see online—his office hasn’t changed much. He seems to have taken down the picture of John-John Kennedy and put up one of himself with Ronald Reagan. He also added a musket to his trophy wall, perhaps for patriotic effect. There’s an eagle on his desk—because he loves America. Added to this marble and melamine playroom: souvenirs from professional wrestlers; one of Shaq’s boat-like basketball shoes; the chair he sat on during The Apprentice. Still among that detritus, is the plaque I thought was the Desiderata. I’m hoping that my memory is correct, that it was a gift from his father, a possible admonition.
Since he became president, Tiger Woods has played golf with Trump at least twice. After a (real) journalist from The (Real) New York Times said to Woods, “At times, especially 2018, I think a lot of people, especially people of color, immigrants, are threatened by him and his policy. What do you say to people who might find it interesting that you have a friendly relationship with him?” Tiger Woods gave a non-answer that amounted to a bland endorsement of Donald Trump. As Golf Digest put it, “Give [Woods] a comfortable chair, air conditioning, and a bottle of water, and he’s still likely to skate around the periphery of anything even remotely controversial…”
Meanwhile, the city that made Donald Trump, whose skyline he pockmarked in brassy, smoky-brown glass, has mostly disowned him. Trump is elsewhere, fighting the “elites” and calling journalists “the enemy of the state.”
When he is back in his Tower (with traffic jams, the police and the Secret Service, and protesters on the street, below), Trump can sit in his man-boy forest of statuary and Lucite affirmation and rail at the media for being “fake,” for not being his style of sponsored content; for not writing him a byline, for their lack of Trump Style. Meanwhile, 300 newspapers recently followed The Boston Globe in defending their right to exist. Other journalists wrung their hands about that effort: What if this makes Donald Trump even angrier? They asked, (like The Los Angeles Timesdid, “Why give [Donald Trump and his allies] ammunition to scream about “collusion?”)
Journalism, however, isn’t about fussing over consequences of getting anyone upset—when journalists worry about that, they have Trump Style. Journalism is about asking the necessary questions and asking them until there is a truthful answer. It’s a process that is often uncomfortable for everyone, even if one of those questions is simple and inconsequential, like the one I wanted to ask back then in the Marla Maples Era: What makes you think Tiger Woods is going to read an article in the back of Trump Style magazine?