In his November editor’s letter, Graydon Carter reveals the presidential candidate’s thin-skinned response to a favorite 25-year-old epithet.
BY GRAYDON CARTER
The myriad vulgarities of Donald Trump—examples of which are retailed daily on Web sites and front pages these days—are not news to those of us who have been living downwind of him for any period of time. I first encountered Trump more than 30 years ago. Back then he was a flashy go-getter from an outer borough eager to make his name in Manhattan real estate. Which he succeeded in doing in the only way he knew how: by putting his name in oversize type on anything he was associated with—buildings, yes, but also vodka, golf courses, starchy ties, and even a sham of a real-estate school. Most people who own private planes include their initials as part of the tail number. Not Trump. On his campaign jet, a Boeing 757, his name runs from the cockpit to the wings—in gold letters, 10 feet high.
Like so many bullies, Trump has skin of gossamer. He thinks nothing of saying the most hurtful thing about someone else, but when he hears a whisper that runs counter to his own vainglorious self-image, he coils like a caged ferret. Just to drive him a little bit crazy, I took to referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy magazine. That was more than a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump.
There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers. I almost feel sorry for the poor fellow because, to me, the fingers still look abnormally stubby. The most recent offering arrived earlier this year, before his decision to go after the Republican presidential nomination. Like the other packages, this one included a circled hand and the words, also written in gold Sharpie: “See, not so short!” I sent the picture back by return mail with a note attached, saying, “Actually, quite short.” Which I can only assume gave him fits.
If Trump is like a feral forest animal on the campaign trail, his Democratic counterpart is a razor clam with a sharp mind and a long memory. They are like matter and anti-matter and really could not be more un-alike. Trump says whatever he wants, takes advice from no one, and so far seems politically unaffected by any of his loathsome boasts and put-downs. Whatever one thinks of Hillary Clinton—and, goodness knows, everyone has an opinion—she knows a lot about government. But she seems to rarely say what she thinks and has surrounded herself with a secretive phalanx of control-freak viziers. At this point, as Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison points out, you’d need to apply the famous Turing Test to see if any authentic human “Hillary” can be distinguished from the machine version that has been in development for more than three decades.
In “Fortress Hillary,” Ellison describes the tight-knit group of advisers and surrogates that has grown up around Clinton like a coral reef. It once consisted mainly of women, but now is about evenly split between the genders. Some of them, like Mandy Grunwald and Huma Abedin, have formed part of Clinton’s defensive shield for almost a quarter-century. Hillary Clinton has been embattled ever since she entered public life, sometimes for reasons of her own making (and sometimes not). The wall around her is now high and thick. As Ellison notes, this wall creates its own set of problems—it’s like the Maginot Line.
The State Department e-mail scandal is Exhibit A—the Clintonian zest for prophylactic secrecy is the root cause of the issue that has mired her campaign in the muck of the recent past. The wall also keeps information from getting in. During the dark days of the Whitewater investigation, one adviser told Hillary to stop reading the newspapers—her aides would tell her what she needed to know. How isolated is Clinton? Most of us would find a single day of full-time Secret Service protection to be intolerable. Hillary, Ellison writes, has had it for 23 years. No other recent presidential candidate—not Obama, not Bush, not even Nixon—has been as inaccessible as Hillary has been from day one of her campaign.
What mystifies V.F. columnist Michael Kinsley about Clinton’s opposite in the presidential sweepstakes is how his fellow Republican candidates—and, frankly, the political media—ever allowed him to sprint onto the playing field as if he were a serious candidate, or a serious anything. In business circles, few take him seriously. Even other real-estate developers give him a wide berth. As Kinsley writes in “Fool’s Paradise,” Trump’s opponents’ strategy from the start has been to engage with him, and debate him, on the “issues”: immigration, ISIS, China, health care, taxes—what have you. At a stroke, it elevated Trump to legitimacy. Too late now, but a better strategy would have been to speak the simple truth:
Trump is unqualified for the job by temperament, experience, and character. “That’s why his campaign is a joke,” Kinsley writes, “not the merits or otherwise of his alleged policies.” Fortunes will be lost on bets as to when the wheels on the Donald Trump bandwagon will fall off. He’s certainly lasted longer than his detractors would have initially guessed. He may be giving the American political system the roughing up it so sorely needs, but even the remote possibility that one of those tiny fingers could be within reach of the nuclear hot button should give any sane Republican the chills.