“A child is running your country,” LJ said.
“In more ways than one,” Mia agreed. “He has no intellectual grasp on most of the issues a president has to manage. Every time he opens his mouth it’s like it’s the first time he’s thought about the issue at hand. One would think that his intellectual childishness would be dangerous for the country, but I think the real danger is the emotional childishness you’re talking about.”
LJ chuckled “I’m not so sure of that. If the guy in charge can’t figure out what’s going on, then how can you expect him to make wise decisions?”
“That’s why presidents are surrounded by advisors. They can’t know everything about everything. But they need to have enough self-awareness to realize what they don’t know, and enough self-confidence to take someone else’s advice. This guy thinks he’s the smartest person in every room, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I used to think that there’s nothing worse than a little bit of knowledge, but it turns out I was wrong. It’s even worse to have a little bit of knowledge, but think you have it all. And I suspect that’s a personality trait that exhibited itself early in his life.”
“That’s part of what we’ve capitalized on all of these years.”
“What happened after Bulgaria?”
“He almost broke free. His unwillingness to invest in Bulgaria after sustaining losses worried the Russians. And although he enjoyed meeting with various Soviet officials, every time someone tried to discuss anything of substance with him, he brushed them off and redirected the conversation to the trappings of power. He wanted to be close to power, but had no idea how to capitalize off of it. The officials most familiar with him reported that he seemed to have no basic understanding of deal making, and no vision beyond that which appeared right in front of his face.”
LJ squirmed in his chair, and tried to lift his legs. The rope restrained them, and he grimaced as it burned against his thigh. “Can we get rid of these ropes? I’m not going anywhere.”
“Presumptuous of you to believe that you deserve such an accommodation. You seem to be doing just fine with the ropes as they are.”
LJ nodded his head as if he knew he had to accept the inevitable.
“Keep talking,” Mia said. “You said he almost broke free. Why didn’t he?”
LJ sighed. “The initial returns from Bulgaria, and breaking away when the returns stopped coming gave him some confidence. He started to believe he had basic business sense. He bragged to his Soviet connections that the Soviets should be smart like him and get out of Bulgaria. With a little bit of business confidence, he decided to take on New York City. He’d made some money leaching off of his grandmother’s accomplishments. He used some of her money to buy some rental housing on Long Island. He implemented some racist housing practices, shortchanged on repairs, and began to develop the bombast that now composes the largest part of his personality. He learned from one of his attorneys at the time that if someone attacks you the last thing you should do is defend yourself. Instead, go on the attack. Make their claims seem ridiculous, make them seem dishonest and corrupt, and paint yourself as the victim.”
“He hasn’t strayed very far from that philosophy. Only the stakes have changed. The strategy is the same.”
“That’s right,” LJ said. “He spent a couple of years as a racist, higher-end slumlord, which provided enough of a return that he felt ready to take on Manhattan. But the Manhattan real estate game was much different than what he found out on Long Island. Most of the established players laughed at him. They’d been in the game for years, and had developed sorts of standard practices and acceptable behavior. All of them looked down upon the type of real estate he practiced. They knew he was a shyster, and they wanted nothing to do with him. He was backed into a corner since no one would deal with him, which meant he had no choice but to find another way in. He needed to find a way to make a huge return on investment, which meant either finding a diamond in the rough, cutting corners during construction, or cheating. It’s not tough to figure out what he decided to do.” LJ paused, as if waiting for Mia to guess.
“Well, I’m sure he tells the story as if he found a diamond in the rough, but I bet that’s not what happened. And he wouldn’t want to cut corners during construction because if anyone found out about that it’d be the end of him. Tenants don’t want to discover they’re living in a place built in a sub-par manner. So that leaves cheating, which seems like the most obvious choice for him and his personality anyway. He thinks rules don’t apply to him though, so he doesn’t even see it as cheating.”
“Of course not,” LJ said. “But that’s exactly what he did. He found a rundown property in Manhattan. Right in Midtown. Built in the 1920s, before the Crash. Beautiful building on the outside, and for decades the rich and famous of New York clamored to live in the upper floors, while the rest of the building held apartments suitable for the rich, but not famous. But things took a downturn at the end of the fifties, and twenty years later many of the upper floors were empty, and rents throughout the rest of the building hadn’t increased in a decade because the building hadn’t been maintained. A group of developers considered tearing it down and replacing it with a modern high rise, but funding fell through. He saw an opportunity. Tearing it down and rebuilding is more than he can finance himself, but if he can cut labor costs, then he can spend what needs to be spent on material to make the place nice, but also make a good profit. Even more important than that though, is that he could then tout his business acumen. Only he could come in and transform a property from a dilapidated has-been of a building, into a premier luxury property. He knew one rousing success in a place like Manhattan would put him on the map.”
“And since no one wanted to work with him, he had to go elsewhere for support?” Mia asked.
“Exactly. Around the same time, he’d heard a story from his wife – they were living in Manhattan, and had just had two kids – about a man trying to setup an emigration operation in Bulgaria. The economic conditions there had deteriorated quickly for the same reason they did in Poland. They got too far into debt, which slowed growth. It wasn’t long before basic consumer goods became scarce. So people wanted out. Especially young people. His wife’s brother came to America, and when he mentioned how many other young men wanted to come, especially skilled laborers, your president saw his opening. He leaned on some of his Soviet contacts, and arranged for hundreds of young Bulgarian men to make their way to New York. They emigrated to Canada, came into the U.S. with fake paperwork provided by Canadian contacts, and just never left. By the time he had arranged the financing to buy the apartment building, he had a work force of hundreds of illegal Bulgarians who wanted nothing more than to work and build a new life. He didn’t have to worry about paying union wages, or providing work place protections, or insurance or anything. He bribed a few city officials, found a few union workers who agreed to supplement his work force for supplemental wages on top of their union wages so no one asked too many questions, and ended up saving millions of dollars. The work came in on time and under budget, and people saw him as a sort of real estate savior who had managed to prevent a classic building from being destroyed, while making a healthy profit for him. What’s not to love?”
“Collusion with Soviets, perhaps?” Mia suggested.
“Of course, but no one knew about that. Or at least no one was talking about that. There’s no way he could operate a project that large without a fair number of people realizing that the workers were illegal. But those who knew decided to keep their mouths shut. Either because they were paid off, or because they saw an opening that would allow them to have a piece of his success for themselves.”
“What happened after that?” Mia asked. “Is that what made him in New York?”
“To an extent,” LJ said. “He made sure that everyone knew that he made a huge profit, and saved the building. It was the first time he put his name on the front of the building, so he got some publicity from that. But the reviews for the building were horrendous. Architecture critics tore it to shreds, and the New York Times said that an overgrown empty lot would look better in the middle of Midtown than his new building. He was furious. He’d expected the entire city to celebrate the ribbon cutting. The governor and the mayor came. But instead of treating him like a hero for saving an important building, the rest of Manhattan mocked him because the building looked so gaudy that they couldn’t imagine its appeal. It looked like something out of a Hollywood embellishment of the City rather than something that really existed and intended to be viewed seriously.”
“So he was still an outsider,” Mia said.
“Yes. And that drove him crazy. With a narcissistic ego like his, the most important thing to him is to be thought of as the best. The most well-respected, the most well-liked, the richest, the most handsome, the most sexually virile. And although he didn’t experience that from much of the City after that first building, the Soviets picked up the slack. Two weeks after the ribbon cutting Brezhnev sent a representative to New York to invite him to Moscow to meet. Brezhnev had seen a story in the Times about the building. He was an architecture buff, and when he discovered that the KGB had a file on your future president, he wanted to talk with him. For whatever reason, he refused to go to Moscow. He said he’d meet Brezhnev, but the meeting had to take place somewhere in Europe. Brezhnev chuckled at the self-importance of the man. He didn’t even respect him enough to become angry. Brezhnev knew what your president didn’t know: his refusal to meet Brezhnev in Moscow didn’t help him assert power, and wasn’t any sort of disrespect. Brezhnev put it like this, ‘He’s the child, and I’m the parent, and he thinks he hurts me with his punches, while I hide my face so he doesn’t see me laughing at him.’”
“Did they meet?” Mia asked. “What was the purpose of the meeting?”
“They met in Bern in 1981. Brezhnev wanted to meet him to discuss the architecture of the building. He’d transformed it from this sort of neo-classical limestone exterior to something that looked almost gold leaf. It’s the sort of over the top tackiness that only a dictator or a conman would embrace.”
“Did he think Brezhnev had ulterior motives? Was he expecting more?”
“Oh, there was more,” LJ said. “With the Soviets and the Russians, there’s always more. Brezhnev was known for self-congratulation. He awarded more than 100 military medals to himself, and embellished his World War II service in his memoirs so that it appeared that the Soviet Union would have lost the war without him. Brezhnev talked about his accomplishments while meeting with him, and he could only respond with lies about how everyone loved his new building. Brezhnev knew he was lying. He’d read the reviews in the Times and other places. But he let the lies stand. Instead of challenging him on the lies, Brezhnev decided to use the lies against him. Brezhnev told him that he wished him continued success, and hoped that one day he could come to Poland or East Germany or another country and accomplish the same feat. Brezhnev watched as he perked up, stuck out his chest, and practically strutted around the room. Brezhnev fed his ego for two hours, listed project after project for which he said the future president would be perfect. Brezhnev suggested enough projects to keep him busy for a century. But then, knowing full well how much the public had mocked his building in New York, and the man who built it, Brezhnev brought the man back to earth. ‘We all know that you’re too busy to come work with us though.’ He couldn’t stand up and exclaim, ‘I’ve got nothing else going on,’ or berate Brezhnev for mocking him. Instead, he had no choice but to play along and ignore the fact that they both knew that despite his best efforts, he remained a marginal player in New York business.”
The wound to his pride, and the embarrassment of the perceived mocking at the hands of Brezhnev, hasn’t left the man to this day
Check back Monday, April 15 for the next chapter of Kompromised.
Brett Baker is the author of The Death Market, and the first two books in the Mia Mathis series, Must Come Down and For the Trees. You can purchase all three here.