December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

Understatement didn’t get him where he is today. As he tells it, he lives in the penthouse of “the most successful building in the world.” He wants to build the tallest building in the world on “the best piece of land” in “the hottest city in the world,” meaning his native New York. Donald Trump, the boy billionaire, turned 41 this year, but the only mid-life crisis he is likely to confront involves deciding which empire is worth conquering next.

He is a creature of our time. Earlier generations venerated saints, war heroes, astronauts; in the Age of the Yuppie, a hugely successful real estate tycoon has become the living symbol of can-do America. His grinning image suggests that there are no problems that might not be overcome by the application of his brains, brash-ness and money. His parties, projects and palaces are chronicled everywhere. And such is the potency of his reputation that, though Trump is a Republican, Speaker of the House Jim Wright made a personal pilgrimage to try to turn him into a Democrat.

But how much of the man’s image is real and how much is a reflection of our own wishful thinking? Trump admits to using what he calls “hyperbole” to sell us his vision of Donald. Yet he is not precisely the self-made man of our folklore, since his father built a multimillion-dollar real estate empire before Trump ever cut a tooth or a deal. Now, in the wake of the October crash (Trump maintains it never laid a finger on him), the twilight of the yuppie may signal a dwindling of his own special magic. He has parted company with NBC, which would have been a major tenant of his proposed massive development project in Manhattan that community groups are savaging.

But even if his dream is deterred, Donald Trump will not likely retreat to the quiet life. He prefers to cast shadows rather than live in them, and the monuments to his ambition—the casinos, the hotels, the soaring urban towers—stand as a testament to his formidable presence. Say what you want about this specter of Barnum, the man knows how to put on a circus.

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