This piece is part of an Arts Section column titled “On the Record.” The column intends to explore the inspiration, drive, and content of the students and community volunteers that produce and DJ the myriad shows at WESU.

His hair was normal then, and he was thinner, less jowly. Ravages of age aside, though, he’s the same Donald J. Trump.

I met him once, in 1989. I was a newspaper reporter in Providence and I’d seen an item saying he would be touring a Massachusetts factory that was turning out the board game “Trump: the Game,” the promotional slogan of which was “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!” See what I mean? Same guy.

I easily found “Trump: the Game” selling online, by the way, for between a buck and a quarter and $1,500. Also on the web, but much less easily, I found the opinion piece I’d written about Trump back before there was a web…can you imagine it?

The piece said that on my way to see Trump, I stopped for gas at my neighborhood gas station and that while the tank was filling, I chatted with the owner, Mike, a solid citizen whose opinion I’ve trusted ever since he’d told me he thought George Bush was lying about Iran-Contra.

“Nah, I don’t like the guy,” Mike said of Trump. “Anybody’s got that kind of money’s had to step on a lot of people.” Then he added, “I shouldn’t say anything though. I don’t even know the guy.”

I agreed with that, and heading north, I reflected on how maybe it was too easy to hate Donald Trump. Doonesbury and other current-events-y comic strips were hitting him for his excessive bad taste and spiritual vacuity. And the now-defunct satirical magazine, “Spy,” did a wicked number on his wife, who back then was Ivana.

I wondered whether hating Donald Trump might be getting old, since what did we even know about the guy, the real guy? Only what we’d read in the paper and seen on TV about his real estate dealings or latest acquisition or monument to himself. The story in the news at the time was that he was supporting the death penalty in $85,000 worth of ads, and that he was wheeling and dealing to buy the Eastern Shuttle, which, of course, he renamed the Trump Shuttle, and which went on to fail miserably.

Anyway, a colleague at the newspaper, an investigative reporter, once accused me of always making “excuses for the bad guys,” and maybe that tendency shows in the gentle way I treated Trump in my piece.

As I tell it: “Trump: The Actual Person,” appeared in East Longmeadow, Mass. as a rather engaging man in a navy blue suit, blue- and white-striped shirt, red tie, black shoes. He seemed altogether human. His gray hair was thinning. He had a bit of dandruff.

“When he walked, his arms hung loosely by his sides and he hunched forward a bit. His clean-shaven face, scrubbed and shining with health, wore an expression of faint pain; he squints, as if he has smoke in his eyes. Probably he was just thinking. Probably he’s always thinking.”

I went so far as to give Trump credit for not seeming “crafty or hardened by greed” and—this is embarrassing—for seeming “honest.” Note to self: Leave such character judgments to the experts.

I said it was nice that, when signing a stack of Trump game money for one worker, he bothered to ask if it was Carl with a C or a K. And that it was sweet of him to kiss the cheek of Gracie Adams, who worked in personnel and who loved his casinos. She’d told me her heart was going “chu-chu-chu-chu-chu-chu-chu” from the minute his helicopter arrived.

He chatted with toy company executives as he walked along, using phrases like “good job,” “okay, we’ll work on it,” and “call the office.” And he accepted a letter written by a savvy local third-grader seeking creative financing for his school: “Dear Mr. Trump: Could you adopt a school in Holyoke please?” Trump slid it into his jacket pocket: “Okay. Fine. Good.”

I noted that when it came time for Trump to give a little speech, he only once referred to himself by his own name, as in “all the proceeds that Donald Trump gets…” will go to charity. Knowing what we know now, I wonder if he actually gave it.

Finally, I asked Trump a question, one that’s either ridiculous or profound, I can’t decide: “Mr. Trump, we know you’re very rich. But are you happy?”

He looked at me for a second and said, “I really think I am. I enjoy what I’m doing.” Then, walking away, he added, “I don’t have time not to be.” And he gave me a look as if to say, that’s the way to go, right?

On my way out the door, I found myself next to him again. There were not too many people around, so I told him about my conversation with the gas station man and what he had said about stepping on people to make money.

I think he’s right,”said Trump. “I think the gas station man is right. I think I have stepped on a lot of people. And I’ve won. Isn’t the world tired of losers? Isn’t this country tired?’”

I end the column with him heading toward his helicopter and me heading to my car, “knowing everything I needed to know about Donald Trump.”

Though calling people “losers” would become his mantra, back then it sent a chill up my spine, even though he was so harmless compared to now. He was just a walking cartoon of someone embarrassingly rich and unable to stop accumulating things. He didn’t affect us.

Recently, in my continuing effort to comfort myself, I dug up another interview I did in my Providence days. It was with the author Tom Wolfe, who had come to Brown University to give a talk in 1996 when Bill Clinton was running for president against Bob Dole. Dole actually was considered a scary prospect. He had a reputation for being “mean.” Who could’ve predicted the meanness that was to come?

The helpful part of my chat with Wolfe is that he was sanguine about the outcome of that presidential race. America, he said, is a “big locomotive” that can’t be derailed by pressures from left and right.

Oh, please be right, Tom Wolfe. I’m all out of excuses for the bad guy.


Maria Johnson hosts and produces “Reasonably Catholic: Keeping the Faith” on WESU. Her website is

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