Soon after its launch in 1986, the satirical magazine Spy picked Donald Trump as the brash embodiment of a crass age. Founded by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, the magazine chronicled New York's obsessions with wealth and social status, zeroing in on Trump's questionable business dealings (of which there were many) and his outlandish personal traits (of which there were perhaps even more).
Carter is now editor of Vanity Fair, and Kurt Andersen is a novelist and host of Public Radio International and WNYC's nationally syndicated show Studio 360. (They sold the magazine in the mid-1990s, and it folded several years later.) No journalists have followed Trump more closely. No journalists have angered him more often. But they have not spoken jointly about Trump's unlikely bid for the presidency — until now.
Late last week, Carter and Andersen reunited at Vanity Fair's offices to speak with NPR about Trump, his appeal as a target of derision and the prospects of a Trump White House.
Their humor at Spy echoes today: Their constant mockery of Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian" reverberates in Marco Rubio's recent jibe that Trump has "small hands." Trump shot back at last week's Fox News debate, calling Rubio "little Marco," and then adding that no one had ever criticized his hands. "Look at these hands," Trump told viewers. "Are these small hands?" Trump then proceeded to defend the size of his genitals from the debate stage.
Neither Trump nor his senior campaign officials responded to several detailed emailed requests for comment from NPR for this story.
On Trump as a target of derision
Andersen: When Spy began, it was a very New York-focused thing, and he, maybe above others ... he wasn't familiar then. He was kind of brand new. And it was the '80s, late '80s, and he was, he epitomized so much of the sudden ostentation --
Carter: The brashness and ostentation --
Andersen: The vulgarity --
Carter: Vulgarity of New York in the '80s, yeah.
Andersen: I mean, New York, '80s, Donald Trump — that, until now, could have been the illustration in the dictionary. And because he has loved then, and loves — like nobody I've ever seen, in a kind of addict way — public attention, he started rising to the bait and talking back to us.
On repeatedly describing Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian"
Carter: Well, we'd come up with these epithets, and there was a certain writer we called a "bosomy dirty book writer." ... It was just the repetition that made them stick a bit back in the day.
Andersen: And we had tried other epithets. We tried "Queens-born casino operator."
Carter: Yeah, yeah, yeah --
Andersen: A couple of others, but it was --
Carter: It was the juvenileness of the "short-fingered vulgarian."
Andersen: Yes. The short-fingered vulgarian: The combination of smart — "vulgarian" — and "short-fingered," just a stupid, ad hominem physical description.
On Trump's reaction
Carter: [Trump] blames me for this more than Kurt. He'll send me pictures, tear sheets from magazines, and he did it as recently as [last] April. With a gold Sharpie, he'll circle his fingers and in his handwriting say, "See, not so short." And this April when he sent me one, I just — I should have held on to the thing, but I sent it right back by messenger with a note, a card stapled to the top, saying, "Actually, quite short." And I know it just gives him absolute fits. And now that it's become sort of part of the whole campaign rhetoric, I'm sure he wants to just kill me — with those little hands.
On Spy magazine
Andersen: Many of the stories that we heard at the bar and at parties that people knew about weren't reported. And also, there was no sense of humor in journalism, and we hadn't for a while had a magazine that we both loved. "Smart, fun, funny, fearless" was our mission statement.
Carter: It was basically a funny magazine about New York City that explained New York, even to New Yorkers. We were young enough to not have any bridges to burn, and just old enough to know a little bit, a few things.
Andersen: And where to put the explosives under the bridges.
On taking Trump seriously as a candidate
Carter: People say, "Why haven't you done a big piece on Trump [for Vanity Fair]?" Well, the thing is, up until recently, every month you thought it was going to end. And I'd go to all this trouble, you know, six or seven weeks of trouble, and then not be able to run the story. His longevity on this road is absolutely mystifying.
Andersen: [Trump] was operating from a different universe, like a cartoon character. There's no gaffe possible out of Donald Trump. He has said everything possible that would get other people in trouble for 30 years. And as it turned out, that's been one of his secret superpowers, is that he really can't say anything that gets him, you know, in trouble.
Carter: I actually think he will say something.
Andersen: Well, of course he's damageable, but, I mean, short of putting on the Nazi uniform, I don't see it happening.
On the prospect of Trump winning
Andersen: There's a scenario one could paint where it wouldn't be that bad, although I think it would be a great American failure of a character test. ... I don't want it to happen, but I gotta say, up until the moment he's sworn in, I find it wondrous and astonishing and a perverse pleasure.
On what happens in a Trump White House
Andersen: Well, Graydon and I would share a bunk in the internment camp.
Andersen: I don't know. [The White House] would probably be --
Andersen: (laughs) It would be very shiny.
Carter: If we had to describe it in one word, I'd say shiny.
Andersen: The White House would look a lot better than it does now.