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.
Updated March 8 at 4:36 p.m. ET, with a response from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks:
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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For decades, two journalists have been close students of the political figure currently confounding the pundits, Donald Trump. One of those media figures is Kurt Andersen. The other is Graydon Carter. And if you follow the media much, you've heard those names. They're influential figures. In 1986, they were both young reporters. And that is when they created the satiric magazine Spy. Spy picked Trump as the embodiment of a crass age. The magazine has long since been shut down, but its jokes echo. Think about the presidential campaign in which Marco Rubio mocked Trump's hands, and Trump actually responded in last week's debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: I have to say this. He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I've never heard of this one. Look at those hands. Are they small hands?
INSKEEP: Now, when Trump said I have never heard of this, that's not accurate. He had heard it before from that magazine, Spy. Its creators are now talking for the first time about the Trump campaign. Here's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: They are both now pillars of respectability. Kurt Andersen is a novelist and host of the nationally syndicated public radio show "Studio 360." Graydon Carter is the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, where they reunited to talk to me. Together they created a subversive cult favorite, Spy magazine. Kurt Andersen explains what they were trying to do.
KURT ANDERSEN: Many of the stories that we heard at the bar and at parties that people had 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Smart, fun, funny, fearless.
They focused on New York's obsessions - politics, finance, fashion, media and real estate. Spy targeted the rich and powerful for comeuppances, none more so than a striving Donald Trump.
ANDERSEN: He epitomized so much of the sudden ostentation.
GRAYDON CARTER: The brashness, the ostentation...
ANDERSEN: The vulgarity.
CARTER: ...Vulgarity, yeah, of New York in the '80s. Yeah.
ANDERSEN: I mean, New York, '80s, Donald Trump - that until now could have been his - 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Trump hated their hazing and threatened the two editors with lawsuits. They published his threats in the magazine. Spy once praised Trump for his promise never to run for public office. Years earlier, Carter says he noticed Trump had small fingers for a tall man. So from Spy's earliest days, they called him a short-fingered vulgarian (ph), repeatedly.
CARTER: Well, we would come out with these epithets. And there was a certain writer we called a bosomy dirty book writer, and we came up with these epithets. And it was just the repetition that made them sort of 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...
ANDERSEN: ...Physical description.
FOLKENFLIK: The image stuck. Graydon Carter says Trump's anger endures.
CARTER: He blames me for this more than Kurt. He'll send me pictures, tear sheets from magazines, and he did it as recently as 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 should have held onto the thing. But I sent it right back by messenger with a note stapled at 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 with those little hands.
FOLKENFLIK: Then, as now, Trump talked about winning in business, in romance, in life. Yet, Spy investigated the shakiness of his business dealings and revealed how most developers in New York real estate considered him a bit player. In one stunt, the magazine sent tiny checks to prominent New Yorkers to see who would cash them. Those who did received a series of checks, each diminishing in size. For Trump, the checks kept coming.
CARTER: He cashed the 64-cent and the 32-cent check. Then we sent out 16-cent checks to people, the people who'd signed the 32-cent check. And only two people cashed the 16-cent check, Adnan Khashoggi and Donald Trump. So if we had designed it, we couldn't have designed it any better.
FOLKENFLIK: Carter says he's had a hard time figuring out how to cover Trump's presidential bid at Vanity Fair. It's a monthly.
CARTER: People say, why haven't you done a big piece on Trump? Well, the thing is, up until recently, every month you thought it was going to end. And I'd go to all this trouble - six or seven weeks of trouble and then not be able to run the story. His longevity on this road is absolutely mystifying.
ANDERSEN: As long as it lasted, he was operating from a different universe like a cartoon character. There's no gaff 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...
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.
FOLKENFLIK: So if Trump reaches the White House...
ANDERSEN: Well, Graydon and I would share a bunk in the internment camp.
ANDERSEN: I don't know. It would - it would probably be...
ANDERSEN: ...It would be very shiny.
CARTER: If you had to describe it in one word, it would be shiny.
ANDERSEN: The White House would look a lot better than it does now.
FOLKENFLIK: For a lot of people hearing this interview, you two guys exemplify the kinds of cosmopolitan elites that Trump attacks.
ANDERSEN: Graydon is from Canada. I'm from Nebraska. So that's how cosmopolitan elite we started out.
CARTER: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, New York magazine, Vanity Fair...
ANDERSEN: Sure, sure, sure.
FOLKENFLIK: ...New York Public Radio.
ANDERSEN: You know, guilty. We're cosmopolitan elites.
FOLKENFLIK: Andersen says he's still coming to terms with the possibility of a President Trump.
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 if we elected him. I do think that. I think it would, in a certain sense, ruin - would be...
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, I'm looking at your face right now. And it seems to be marked by a combination of a great smile and deep pain.
ANDERSEN: Fair enough, true enough, yes. No, I don't want it to happen. But I've got to say, I - up until the moment he's sworn in, I find it wondrous and astonishing and a perverse pleasure.
FOLKENFLIK: Laughing 'til it hurts, Spy magazine founders Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter speaking together for the first time about Donald Trump's presidential aspirations, as their great white whale charts and improbable course towards the White House. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: Now, let's just note, David sent emails seeking comment for this story from Donald Trump and his senior campaign officials over the past several days. Late last night, a campaign spokeswoman said she would ask Trump what he thinks, no comment has yet arrived. We'll let you know if one does. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.