News from the Archives: A Tale of Two Presidents, Letters Between Nixon and Trump

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Speaking as someone who once spent many hours in various archives, including the official libraries of U.S. presidents, I was fascinated by recently unearthed exchanges between Nion and Trump.

According to the Associated Press, Dear Donald, Dear Mr. President: A Trump-Nixon ’80s tale a new exhibit has just opened at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:

They were two men in Manhattan who craved the same thing: validation. One was a brash, young real estate developer looking to put his stamp on New York, the other a disgraced elder statesman bent on repairing his reputation.

That’s how a thirty-something Donald Trump and a seventy-ish Richard Nixon struck up a decade-long, fulsome correspondence in the 1980s that meandered from football and real estate to Vietnam and media strategy.

The letters between once and future presidents, revealed for the first time in an exhibit that opens Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, show the two men engaged in something of an exercise in mutual affirmation. The museum shared the letters exclusively with The Associated Press ahead of the exhibit’s opening.

We all recognize Trump the narcissist, but the letters reveal he also knows how to lay on flattery when he wants to:

“I think that you are one of this country’s great men, and it was an honor to spend an evening with you,” Trump writes to Nixon in June 1982, less than eight years after Nixon resigned the presidency during the Watergate scandal. The two had been spotted together at the “21” nightclub and Trump was writing Nixon to thank him for forwarding a photo.

Nixon, too, knew how to stroke the ego of this new acolyte:

“Let me be so presumptuous as to offer a little free advice (which is worth, incidentally, exactly what it costs!”) Nixon writes to Trump. Nixon, who played football in college and never lost his love for the game, then unspools detailed thoughts on how Trump should handle the New Jersey Generals football team that he had recently purchased and would fold by 1986. (Nixon included plenty of shoutouts for the underappreciated linemen, his old position.)

What spawned this exchange? Well, monumental self-confidence and high self-regard, at least for Trump. But let’s face it, one doesn’t get to be President without having an insanely strong ego (I hesitate to call it healthy because I think it’s much higher than would be considered within the normal range):

What motivated the correspondence between a young man seeking a bright future and an ex-president with a dark past? Nixon expert Luke Nichter, a professor at Texas A&M-Central Texas, says the two men “saw something similar in each other — that toughness, that guts, even being beaten up and coming back.”

At Trump’s age, says Nichter, “I can’t imagine trying to befriend an ex-president. … Somehow, I think they both pulled it off and I think they both served a need for each other.”

Common Themes

Both men despised the media. And let’s be honest, both had – and continue to hold – sound reasons for harbouring such a perspective:

The two men bonded over themes that resonate today: a shared distrust of the media, a desire to maximize TV ratings, the idea of using people as “props,” and more.

Writing about the Generals’ broadcast potential, Nixon tells Trump: “The people in the stands, apart from what they pay for their tickets, are indispensable props for the television broadcast which in the future is where the real money lies.”

It was a powerful lesson from a past president for a future one who would shamelessly inflate his reputation as a mogul over 14 seasons on “The Apprentice” and later turn his presidency into its own reality show.

The two men commiserated over their shared mistrust of the press. In 1990, Nixon reached out to Trump when the developer’s business deals were tanking and he couldn’t pay his bills, writing: “Dear Donald — I know nothing about the intricacies of your business enterprises but the massive media attack on you puts me in your corner!”

Trump, even now, is never one to let a grievance against the press go unaired, his strained relations with the media unsurpassed by Nixon or other presidents.

Anyway, the remainder of the AP account reads as filler. But if I had plans to be anywhere near Yorba Linda anytime soon, I would try to take in this exhibition.

I also need to check out whether the exhibition has any virtual analogue.

 

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16 comments

  1. Big River Bandido

    What a fascinating find. Thank you, Jerri-Lynn, for this. To me, this suggests that DJT has always had one eye on the presidency.

    I’m reminded of the story told by Thomas Corcoran about Lyndon Johnson. After his first election to the House, LBJ paid a call on Franklin Roosevelt. According to Corcoran and Eliot Janeway who recounted the story, after Johnson left the Oval Office FDR called Corcoran and said “I’ve just met the most interesting young man…if he plays his cards right, and hangs on to the friends he makes, this boy Lyndon Johnson could become President of the United States.” Makes me wonder if RN’s political radar was triggered by the young Trump.

    I have a question though…what in the world is “virtual analogue”?

    Reply
    1. Samuel Conner

      > this suggests that DJT has always had one eye on the presidency.

      Agreed.

      I have a vivid memory of a major print media item (probably in the Boston Globe, not sure if an editorial or news piece; probably editorial as it accompanied a cartoon) back in the early ’90s (contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the RMN correspondence) on DJT’s contemplation of seeking the presidency. There was cartoon of DJT boasting about the WH, that it was a “fabulous proppity”.

      The item mentioned DJT reviewing favorable results from some polling.

      Maybe “The Apprentice” was part of a “long game” media strategy to increase name recognition. I never saw a single episode, which shows how out of touch I am.

      ————

      perhaps “virtual analogue” is “online counterpart”

      Reply
  2. Carolinian

    For those of us old enough to remember Nixon I’d say there are remarkable parallels between the two eras with the stipulation: first time as tragedy, second time as farce. Nixon, like Trump, was despised by the social elites of the era both for his red baiting past and his attempts to finesse the atrocity that was Vietnam. They were also Kennedy cultists who looked down on the plebian Nixon with his boasts of Republican cloth coats, Bebe Rebozo buddyship and valorization of the “silent majority.” When Nixon was caught out in petty criminality there was an eagerness to expel the interloper although after he was gone Kay Graham, owner of the Washington Post, said “we’ll have no more of that.” After all she was social friends with the Reagans.

    Nixon was also a major criminal (claiming his predecessors all did the same) while possibly being one of the smartest people to become president. Hence the farce since Trump may be one of the dumbest. The press, though, has ever since been obsessed with reliving Watergate, their glory time. And so if Trump hasn’t committed crimes big enough for an impeachment they and the Dem opposition simply make them up. We are living through the comic book version of Watergate and it makes one wonder whether the first version was really such a great idea.

    Reply
    1. norm de plume

      ‘Nixon was also a major criminal’

      Or, as Hunter S phrased it: ‘He Was a Crook’

      Reading this inclined me to go back and enjoy some of that vitriolic hilarity:

      ‘Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

      ‘Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill’

      ‘Nixon’s meteoric rise from the unemployment line to the vice presidency in six quick years would never have happened if TV had come along 10 years earlier… When Nixon finally had to face the TV cameras for real in the 1960 presidential campaign debates, he got whipped like a red-headed mule’

      I wonder what Thompson would have said about Trump. There is plenty of published rage, and just plain rage, about the Donald. No shortage of Orange Man humour either. But not much that combines the two.

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        Guess one could point out that Winston Churchill was also a major criminal so the two may have had more in common than you think. Both were obsessed with their place in history. And when he wasn’t bombing Cambodia, overthrowing Allende or breaking into Watergate Nixon did some things that would be considered quite liberal by today’s standards.

        Think my point is that it was his social awkwardness–that thing that TV spotlit–was his real sin among the elites. After all it was Kennedy and Johnson who entangled us in a Southeast Asia war that killed millions. If Nixon had won in 1960 he might have had the smarts to avoid the whole thing. It used to be said that the Democrats were the ones who started all the wars, having to prove their macho bona fides. Many of those Nixon haters such as Katharine Graham were rah rah Vietnam supporters in the beginning (awkward fact downplayed by recent movie about her).

        All of which is to say that Nixon was a lot more complicated and interesting than the Hunter Thompson version. Never been a fan.

        Reply
  3. barefoot charley

    What did these two have in common? Roy Cohn ffs! Nixon’s illegal beagle and anti-Commie attack dog became the Trump family’s lawyer/fixer and the Donald’s close friend through the 80s. So each of them had pre-clearance.

    Reply
  4. KevinD

    Both men despised the media. And let’s be honest, both had – and continue to hold – sound reasons for harbouring such a perspective:

    I don’t buy the view that Trump despises the media.
    I certainly don’t buy the perspective that he has been unfairly persecuted by the media.

    There is no bad media for Trump. The media is his oxygen. The media, in turn has raked in millions. The more outrageous he gets, the more the media loves it. It’s a mutualistic relationship – to ALL our detriment.

    Trump has degraded the office and made us a global laughing stock – anyone who has fiends or family overseas can plainly see. I can only hope this country wakes up eventually.

    Reply
    1. Todd

      America will wake up just about the time it’s to late, Like the end scene in Thelma and Louise. The car left the cliff but still in the air.

      Reply
    2. Noone from Nowheresville

      @KevinD

      Trump has degraded the office and made us a global laughing stock

      We deserve to be a laughing stock if only we weren’t so damned scary. Of course that started long before we reset political life to year zero with Trump. How impressive is that. I mean seriously year zero. That’s a huge huge honor to bestow on the supposed opposition. Great PR and propaganda. Plays well for the media. What more could one ask for?

      Reply
      1. RMO

        Speaking from the perspective of someone who is not an US citizen and doesn’t live in the US I would consider making the US a global laughing stock to be Trump’s greatest achievement – seriously. Anything that gets other nations to question the influence of or consider no longer following the malign guidance of the US is a good thing.

        Reply

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