Trump-Nixon con­nec­tion

Past, fu­ture pres­i­dents struck up cor­re­spon­dence in 1980s

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Nancy Benac

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 30-some­thing Don­ald Trump and a 70-ish Richard Nixon struck up a decade­long, 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 with the As­so­ci­ated Press ahead of the ex­hibit’s open­ing.

“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. The next fall, it is Nixon chim­ing in.

“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.)

Trump, for his part, is un­abashed about one of his aims for the re­la­tion­ship: “One of my great am­bi­tions is to have the Nixons as res­i­dents in Trump Tower,” he writes that Oc­to­ber.

But af­ter the Nixons toured Trump’s flag­ship de­vel­op­ment on Fifth Av­enue, the ex-pres­i­dent wrote that his wife “was im­pressed as I was but feels at this time she should not un­der­take the or­deal of a move.” She had suf­fered a mild stroke that Au­gust.

So it went, the patter of “Dear Don­ald” and “Dear Mr. Pres­i­dent.”

Trump, putting his usual self-con­grat­u­la­tory stamp on the ex­changes, said shortly af­ter the 2016 elec­tion that he didn’t know Nixon “but he would write me let­ters. It was very in­ter­est­ing. He al­ways wanted me to run for of­fice.”

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.”

Their let­ters didn’t have far to travel as they criss­crossed Man­hat­tan: Trump wrote from his of­fice in Trump Tower; Nixon from his at Fed­eral Plaza, about four miles away.

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. What­ever bound the two men as friends, their let­ters serve as a sort of ink-blot test for read­ers.

John Dean, well versed in Nixon’s per­son­al­ity af­ter serv­ing as his White House coun­sel dur­ing the Water­gate years, sees his old boss and Trump pick­ing up “the waves of each other’s per­son­al­i­ties” in their let­ters.

“These are two au­thor­i­tar­ian per­son­al­i­ties who would have a nat­u­ral affin­ity for each other,” said Dean, who helped ex­pose the Water­gate scan­dal and is a harsh critic of Trump.

Repub­li­can Newt Gin­grich, fa­mil­iar with both men, says Trump may have learned a bit of for­eign pol­icy from lis­ten­ing to Nixon, but he sus­pects the young de­vel­oper also just liked the idea of know­ing a his­toric fig­ure.

RICHARD NIXON PRES­I­DEN­TIAL LI­BRARY & MU­SEUM

Busi­ness­man Don­ald Trump, left, shakes hands with for­mer Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon on March 11, 1989, at a trib­ute gala to Nel­lie Con­nally, a for­mer first lady of Texas, in Hous­ton. The let­ters be­tween Trump and Nixon are on dis­play at the Richard Nixon Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary & Mu­seum.

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