Donald Morrison: The man who knew Donald Trump


PARIS >> Donald Trump and I were classmates. We shared the same small but leafy University of Pennsylvania campus for two years, dozed in the same classrooms and likely got indigestion at the same Philadelphia eateries. We both graduated one steamy late-May afternoon and are listed in the ceremony's program, without honors.

Yet in all our time together, I never laid eyes on the guy.

I am not alone. Inquiring reporters this election year have found that hardly any of my 1,500 or so classmates could recall ever seeing Trump. He apparently spent little time on campus. His picture is missing from the yearbook, along with any mention of extracurricular activities.

Shortly after graduation, Trump and I moved to Manhattan. He went into real estate, I a less respectable trade, journalism. For decades, we walked the same Midtown streets, went to the same restaurants and parties, and even shared a few friends. Again, fate kept us from actually meeting each other.

Nonetheless, I am fully qualified to write a perceptive, revealing account of our years together.

Lewis precedent

Don't think so? Consider the case of Sinclair Lewis, one of the Berkshires' most celebrated authors (the Nobel Prize in Literature and a Pulitzer for fiction). Lewis, who lived in Williamstown in the 1940s is known for such socially conscious classics as "Main Street," "Babbitt" and "Elmer Gantry."

He also wrote "The Man Who Knew Coolidge," a half-forgotten 1928 gem about a garrulous salesman named Lowell Schmaltz who purports to have been a classmate of the 30th president at Amherst. Though dismissed by critics as lightweight satire, the book shimmers with Schmaltz's embodiment of — and Lewis' contempt for — the incurious, self-satisfied chamber of commerce blowhards who were pushing America toward the Great Depression. Lewis, incidentally, never met Coolidge.

Four decades later, Lewis' book inspired a similar, more commercially successful effort: "The Man Who Knew Kennedy," by Vance Bourjaily, a prolific novelist who taught at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop. Bourjaily's raconteur is Barney James, a New England furniture manufacturer (remember those?) whose life and worldview are upended by the assassination of the 35th president. James is a stand-in for the naïve, over-confident America of the pre-Vietnam War 1960s. Turns out James (like Bourjaily) never met Kennedy either.

I'm thinking of making this literary genre a trilogy with, inevitably, "The Man Who Knew Trump." Yet my prospective novel has a problem: Donald Trump isn't exactly the sort of person a self-respecting fictional narrator, i.e., me, would boast of knowing.

Sure, he has the glow of great wealth and the support of many voters. But it's difficult to muster admiration for a bullying, blustering, dictator-loving, treaty-shredding, wall-building, torture-supporting, draft-dodging, tax-chiseling, charity-stiffing, crotch-grabbing, half-informed serial adulterer. Others may have similar unease about Hillary Clinton, but they lack my long acquaintance with Trump.

In any case, the Coolidge and Kennedy novels weren't so much about the man — or the narrator — as about the worlds they inhabited, and in this Trump is literary gold. Who better personifies our attention-deficit era of cable TV shouters, social media celebrities, science deniers, government haters, conspiracy theory retailers and nativist rabble rousers? Who better embodies the contemporary, post-fact mindset in which passion trumps reason, perception outranks reality, popularity is valued more than competence, and consistency is a quaint relic of the Coolidge era? If we seek a poster child for our troubled times, Trump's the man.

A sure best-seller

The more I think about my project, the more I'm encouraged to push on. After all, we readers prefer our heroes flawed, and our heroes' eras troubled. We find, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all quietly competent leaders are alike, while all wildly dangerous ones are interesting each in his own way. After all, Hitler books vastly outsell biographies of James Polk. Thus, I am convinced that "The Man Who Knew Trump" would be a resounding best-seller.

It had better be. If Trump actually becomes the third U.S. president to merit such literary treatment, I'll need the money. The economy will implode, foreign trade will collapse, the national debt will soar, unions will be crushed (but there will be plenty of work for native-born Americans picking fruit), women will lose their jobs if they gain weight or complain of sexual harassment, health coverage will become a luxury, power plants will switch to coal, and the asthma inhalers we'll consequently require will cost $10,000 for a two-pack.

But at least I could say I knew Trump. And that brush with celebrity would certify me as a man very much in tune with the times.

Donald Morrison, an author, lecturer and former editor at Time Magazine, was editor-in-chief of the Daily Pennsylvanian during Donald Trump's senior year. He is a part-time resident of Becket.


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