The Spy magazine co-founder talks about branding Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, the host of WNYC’s Studio 360, Kurt Andersen, talked about labeling Donald Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian” at the magazine he co-founded, Spy.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Kurt at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Kurt Andersen, the host of Studio 360 and the man who has done many other amazing things in his life, including branding Donald Trump back in the ‘80s.
Kurt Andersen: We didn’t think of it as branding at the time.
Look what you wrought. You and Graydon Carter founded Spy Magazine.
I know you’ve told this story before, but I’m going to ask again: Who decided and why did you decide to name Donald Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian”?
Well, because he is. But Trump was actually in our very first issue. The very first issue of Spy, October 1986. The cover story was “Jerks, the ten most embarrassing New Yorkers.”
You nailed it.
And there he was! Before he was even well known in New York, actually. Anyway, we tried it out there. We called him “a Queens-born casino operator.” We had all kinds of little [names].
This was the Spy style, right? Everyone got a [moniker]?
Not everyone, but the regular people got an epithet attached to them. Henry Kissinger, for instance, was “socialite war criminal, Henry Kissinger.” [PK laughs] It was fun. See? You laugh.
Yeah, it’s good.
And it was fun to repeat it every time he came up in the magazine. Anyway, we tried out various ones on Trump and none of them took, really, until 1988 when we called him a short-fingered vulgarian. Now, short-fingered came from the fact that my co-editor had profiled Trump a couple years before we started Spy, and remarked at the time what short fingers this guy had, this 6-foot-2 guy had. And so I think we were just amused by the idea of calling him a short-fingered vulgarian.
And do you remember his response? I’m sure you must remember his response.
He didn’t respond immediately to that.
Because he famously reads everything and for a while would send clippings with his silver marker —
Gold Sharpie, I think.
But yes. As we’ve seen in the 30 years since, he was [both] angry in some way that we were yanking his chain in various ways and pleased for the attention. And back in 1987, 1988 and ’89, he was even thirstier for attention because he didn’t get as much. So then we started, later in the ’80s and early ’90s, doing long-form journalism about his life and finances and various shenanigans that really did make him angry. He threatened “massive litigation” against us.
But you said you started Spy in what, ’86?
And at the time Trump wasn’t even that well known in New York, and for a long time Spy was really a New York magazine in many ways. I could buy it in Minneapolis where I was sort of reading it but …
But only in Minneapolis really. New York and Minneapolis.
That was pretty much it. But he was a regional character for a long time.
He was, he was. At Spy in the beginning we called ourselves the “New York Monthly,” and until he published “The Art of the Deal” a year after we started, in 1987, he was just one of the New York characters who got a lot of attention because he called up the tabloid papers and got column inches about himself. But he was small.
So you’ve been watching his career, watching his evolution —
My entire adult life, yes.
— for your entire adult life.
In some cases, you get paid for it. What have you seen in the way he has changed or not changed, going back to the late ‘80s?
The way he has changed is — although back then, back even in ’87 and ’88 when we were doing Spy for the first time, he was flirting with the idea of running for president. “I would be a better president, I’d understand this nuclear proliferation thing.” So that was there, but he wasn’t a political figure.
He didn’t say the horrible, hateful things he started saying in the last five years about the president not being born in the United States and things like that. He hadn’t gone there yet. So, apart from that, apart from deciding he was going to be king of whatever he’s the king of, the populist hard right, he was the same. He was completely the same.
It’s the same character.
A hundred percent. A hundred percent except the part of how he’s applied it to this particular form of politics, yeah.
I talk to a lot of people about Trump on this show, it turns out, because it’s an interesting topic. And I still don’t really have an answer [to this question] but you might have one. Is he in on the joke? Sometimes I feel like it’s game, it’s wrestling, it’s a circus when he did the thing prior to the Sunday debate where he brought up Paula Jones and the other women. I thought, “This is entertainment for him and he’s treating it as such and the fact that we’re all offended might please him.” But to him it’s stagecraft. But then I think, “No, he’s maybe not aware.”
I think yes and no is the answer. Wrestling, WWE, is, if not the key, a large key, to the Donald Trump phenomenon as we’re experiencing today. What they started doing in the ’80s more than they’ve ever done before when he got involved in world wrestling, is this blurring of the lines between the characters they’re playing and “I’m pretending to be angry at you, Hulk Hogan,” and bringing that outside the ring and making it kind of real and blurring for everybody what was real and what isn’t.
But everyone in wrestling, and a lot of those guys are actually pretty smart, they’re all in on the joke. They get that they’re acting, it’s part of the thing.
Yeah, yeah. Although of course in the last year, Hulk Hogan is confused about [it].
Hulk Hogan seems to have slipped the bounds a little bit.
Yeah, exactly. Maybe that’s changed. But I think I have always thought he had some mental disorders going on. For instance, one of the most basic — you can call it narcissism, you can call it whatever you want — but this hunger, this need like nothing I’ve ever seen in anyone, for attention. Okay, we all like attention.
And a lot of people in show business.
You’re doing a podcast.
“Listen to me.”
Yeah, exactly. But not in the hungry “I need it like air and water” way that he needs it, I think. So that leads to confusion, probably, in his mind about what’s entertainment and what’s real. And at this point, I don’t think it’s all a joke. I don’t think it’s all a show. I think he now believes himself to be the leader of some anti-elite new party.
And you think when he goes back home to Trump Tower he still believes that. It’s one thing to him now. Because it seems like he doesn’t believe what he says at any give time.
Well, he believes what he feels. And of course as Stephen Colbert has taught us for a dozen years, the difference between believing and feeling has become allied: It’s all truthiness in America. Was he really angry at Hillary Clinton in the first debate? Yeah, I think he was really angry. So does that feel like belief? I don’t think he believes in anything.
Like when he says, “You’d be in jail.” And then people say, “Well, that was clearly a joke.” And I think it is a joke, I mean it’s a bad joke, but I think he doesn’t believe it. The fact that people respond to it, that he believes.
Well, but you have a more hopeful view —
[laughs] My cynical post-modernism is now hopeful.
Exactly, of a possible presidency where, “No, no, no, I’m not really going to put her in jail now that I’m president, or send the Justice Department out for her or get a special prosecutor or push the button to nuke North Korea.” Mmm, I’m not so sure.
One last Trump thing. I was watching with my wife — I want to call it a super-cut, I think you can just call it an assembly of clips — it was him and Billy Bush. I can’t remember if it was Colbert or Samantha who had put it together.
I watched it. It was him and Billy Bush over the years, and my wife watched it and said, “Oh, he used to look like he was getting it or he had a sense of humor or he had lightness; he doesn’t look the way he does now. He didn’t have that sort of heavy anger.” That part’s new, right?
Newish. I noted the same thing for some years, that he never seems happy. Yeah, I think it’s true. I think that is new. I think back in the day, 25 years ago, you could see him actually enjoying himself, enjoying life, having glee. I think he’s become the disturbed, inconsolable freak that he is. And I think that finally the unhappiness shows. And I think it really shows in this election. Which is so interesting because my view of the presidency and who wins is always like, the person who comes across as happier — no matter how marginally happier — usually wins. Richard Nixon: Exception. Otherwise that’s the way it works.
“I would like to get a beer with George W. Bush.”
Yeah, all of that. He comes across as angry-happy, I guess, when he’s making fun of little Marco and stuff like that.
His convention speech was very angry, very dire.
Exactly. And he can’t fake contrition, he can’t fake hopefulness, he can’t fake … other than saying, “America’s great and we’re going to be winning,” that’s the end of that line. He’s a sad fella.
As an incisive media observer, incisive maker of media for 30 years in and around journalism, there’s a lot of soul searching, but what happens after Trump? What does the journalism establishment do? Someone asked me that this morning. I said, “I don’t know, I guess they keep doing the same thing.”
I don’t know that they’re equipped to do anything else beyond what they’ve done, which is put people who are interesting and popular on TV and then sort of leave it to other people outside of TV to critique them. Does that make sense to you?
Well, it depends what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the news media coverage of political candidates and presidential candidates, that’s a very specific question about what they do.
Clearly, the news media were not prepared to cover a cartoon character running for president. In a way, you can’t blame them. In a way, you can blame them for a lot, especially television — the television channels, the news channels especially, became addicted to the ratings. He was right. His cynicism about, “Hey, they like me because I bring high ratings!” is exactly right. And I don’t think any of the people running the news channels ever said to the people on the air anything like, “I don’t care how hard you go after him, I don’t care if he is ever going to come on our show again, just do what you gotta do because that’s what we do as journalists.” I don’t think that was ever said. [laughs] You know? So I think that there’s something to figure out in terms of the news media, how to cover the next Trump.
And is there a next Trump? I know Jacob Weisberg thinks so. A lot of folks talk, someone’s going to do a Trump, someone’s going to figure out how to do Trump just as racist but less blundery. I don’t know if there is a character like him.
What we all say now is, “Well, who could have ever figured this? So anything can happen.” And I get that. So you know, if Trump is the beta version of some more-polished monster fascist person, I find it hard to know what that ready-for-primetime-winning version is.
And he could still win. There’s still time.
We’re recording this on a Tuesday, you’ll hear this on a Thursday, there’s one more debate to go. Maybe we’ll find a new Ken Bone character to amuse us for a couple days.
Let’s not find a new Ken Bone character.
I don’t feel great about that.
No! It’s a fake, pretend, “Oh, it’s just so depressing and gross and ugly, let’s look at this guy!” No!
Yeah, I’m not a big fan. I want to go back to Spy. You started Spy in ’86.
And whenever I read a profile it says you and Graydon Carter co-founded Spy in ’86 and no one ever explains how you co-found a magazine in the ’80s when you were in your early 20s.
I was 31.
Okay, sorry, I got the timeline wrong. How do you put together a magazine in 1986?
Well, it was being done. I mean, there was no website internet startups to do.
Right, but also magazines were a thing.
Oh, they were definitely a thing, and nobody felt that they were on their last legs.
Right, so it was not a small undertaking to assemble a magazine.
It wasn’t, but Graydon had had a little magazine in Canada so he knew a little bit more. And we met at Time Magazine and you raise some money, you raise a million bucks and start printing magazines.
And what did you think you were going to build when you started?
Oh, Lord knows. I mean, we thought it was going to be a [funny] magazine: A journalistically based funny magazine that would do the things that other magazines weren’t doing, print the stories that our friends were reporting and told us about it all but never published. That would very deliberately not do … “Oh, other magazines do reviews? We won’t do those. We’ll do reviews of reviews.” Or, “Oh, other magazines are doing service journalism about how to know what tie to buy? We won’t do any of that.”
So it was really almost as a lark to let’s do what nobody else is doing and let’s make a magazine that we would love as much as we loved magazines when we were younger.
And it was very knowing and very insidery. And like we talked, very New York. Again, I’m reading it in the late ‘80s.
Yeah, as a child, I guess.
Yeah, in Minneapolis in high school, in college. Some of the characters I would understand, “I know who that is.” A lot of them were totally over my head.
Many people tell me, “I learned who Donald Trump and Michael Ovitz and half a dozen other people were from Spy.” And so, yeah. It was insidery but you were all welcome.
Right. And then famously, financially not successful. There were ups and downs and it went through multiple ownership and you guys got out of that run fairly early.
Fairly early. It was very successful financially right away because we were lucky enough to have started it in a time of economic prosperity and things were great. And we were breaking even three years later after starting it, which is pretty amazing. And then you know, we were kind of the canary in the mine of a 1990/91 recession. And this weird little magazine all alone, suddenly we went from making money to not at all making money very quickly. Sold it to somebody else who sold it to somebody else who sold it to somebody else. I was there for six or seven years and then it ran for another five or six years after I left.
How do you assess its legacy? In the wake of Gawker, a lot of people were tracing the lineage between Punch and then you guys and Gawker. And Liz Spiers, the first editor of Gawker, when I met her she was walking around with a bunch of old Spy magazines in a bag, it’s just what she did. Are you happy that you spawned Gawker?
You know, happy? There are many spawn. Spy’s DNA went to Gawker, Spy’s DNA in some way is in John Oliver. I mean, Spy’s DNA is around various places. You’re right, Elizabeth Spiers literally studied Spy magazine and she was the first editor of Gawker so there’s sort of direct ancestry there. You know, it’s all fine. I mean, I wouldn’t do Gawker but you can’t pick your descendants.
Spy had a very sharp, acerbic, you might say mean, edge to it at various times. I really appreciated that. Gawker certainly did. It seems like we’re in a cycle now where we don’t want that from our humor or our satire. Does that go in waves? Or do you think those are just individual publications?
That’s a good question. I think Gawker went as far down that road as we’ve seen in America. I think more than meanness, the axis of “is it too mean or not mean enough?” That’s an axis. One thing that Gawker is a case study of is the internet more than meanness qua meanness. Which is to say, if you’ve got to post 10 or 20 or however many stories a day, it’s not just going to be the Donald Trumps of the world or whomever’s of the world, the Michael Jacksons.
Your targets can’t all be big targets. Eventually you start poking little people.
Correct. You start punching down. I remember when we started Spy. People said to me, “What? Every month? No, that’s too much of this kind of satirical bile.” Which sounds ridiculous now. But I say, as a person of a certain era or a certain taste or tolerance for that: Ten times a day? I don’t need that.
Give me one.
Give me once a week, give me once a day, maybe. When you’re feeding that beast maybe you become beastly.
You co-founded Spy with Graydon Carter, Graydon Carter eventually ends up running Vanity Fair, the most establishment magazine there is, he is the establishment. Many people pointed this out, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about this. But did you consciously think, “All right, well, we’ve been the acerbic, mean, biting publication, I can’t do that personally anymore. I’ve got to take a different tack.” Do you think Graydon thought about that?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. Very few careers that I know about are that plotted. You stumble around, see what’s available and you do it. Or not. And you make those choices.
Or like, you were consulting for Barry Diller at one point.
I was, I was.
That’s the kind of guy I assume you ripped apart in Spy.
Indeed! And I became friendly with Harvey Weinstein, for instance. Somebody else we attacked mercilessly in Spy. So you know, if they can forgive, why not? But I do think both of us felt that what we were doing was a youngish man’s game. And more than being a youngish man’s game, just a thing that it was emotionally, spiritually exhausting to do.
You could only do that thing for that long.
I can. And I think, again, you mentioned Gawker. Nick Denton, I think, had his fill of it. I mean, from talking to him and seeing what he said in public. You only want to do those kinds of things so long.
He seemed to be fine with it just up until the end and then decided, “Now I’ve had enough.”
I’ll ask him about it next time I see him. You’ve done a bunch of cool things. You edited New York Magazine for a period. And then at one point you and Michael Hirschorn started Inside.com.
We did, we did.
Which, still in the archives here, this was, again, a really influential publication that didn’t last very long. I really wanted to work there for years.
Well, let’s go back in time and I’ll hire you.
Yeah, no no, I tried interviewing with you and you were correctly unimpressed with me.
Really? I actually interviewed you?
Let’s not talk about Peter Kafka’s failed attempts to work at Inside. It worked out well. But this was a very cool trade slash general interest publication about media. You hired everyone who was good, basically. Like David Carr. And everyone who worked there went on to do amazing things. Inside.com itself didn’t succeed, though. Why not?
It was funny. We started it in 1999/2000 which we thought like, “Oh my god, this is a good idea. It’s covering the entertainment information media world online, as a native online publication.”
Where it should be.
But we felt like we were barely getting in on the end of the dot-com boom. Like, “We’ve got to start this! We’re starting a band late.” And of course the irony is that it was way too early for itself. As a business.
Right, I remember you going to LA and Variety was still a thing and people who were getting emails who were studio executives were having them read to them.
Yes, right, exactly. Precisely. And when we, very full of hubris, would say, “Variety is going to be out of business in no time because of us,” kind of statements, it was early. Even though we thought it was late. And maybe even more to the point, there was no online advertising. So we had to do this crazy, “Okay, we’re going to charge these people tremendous sums of money for subscriptions just like Variety and Hollywood Reporter and Publisher’s Weekly do.” Well, you know, and we sold some but not enough quickly enough to make it a business. There was no advertising in addition to being no broadband and so forth. But really no advertising in 2000 to sustain [it].
Fast forward to 2016, there’s still a question of whether there’s enough advertising to sustain online publications.
That’s true, that’s true. But there was close to zero back then. So that’s the biggest reason. And of course we raised the money and started at this nutty time when people who should have known better gave us way too much money to start this thing.
Are you the owner of the famous quote about it’s easier than getting laid in the ’60s?
Yeah, yeah. And again, I was a child in the ’60s so I certainly didn’t get laid in 1969, which was the quote that I gave to Howard Kurtz one morning [PK laughs]. But yeah, so it was true. It was nutty, that bubbly moment. So, again, I’m not blaming anybody. Except, you know, we spent too much money and the chances for revenue were absurdly small.
Having gone through that process in the late ‘90s, doing a media startup and now benefit of hindsight and watching what’s going on, do you ever get the itch, saying, “Oh man, I can do this now. I have a plan, let’s do it.”
No. I don’t really. I think I can provide useful advice, as you mentioned, consulting for Barry Diller for a while. Now that I’m old and wizened and wise, I know things. But I have not had the moment of, “By God, now is the time I want to start this all-in entrepreneurial thing.” No. Starting Spy, running New York Magazine and starting Inside.com …
Scratched those itches.
And then I started a radio show. And that has it’s own longer-lasting entrepreneurial satisfactions in its way.
I want to ask whether —
Entrepreneurial not in the sense of making much money, but nevertheless, making a media thing.
You’re working in public radio.
Actually, I bet you get paid well. But let me, before I ask you about radio, what do you make of — again, because you’ve watched it a bunch of times, we’ve seen them in the last years. We’ve seen a cycle of money going back into media — people didn’t want to touch it, then they did — people including Vox Media where I work raised big sums of money. Having watched this long enough, can you sort of see, “Oh, I know what’s coming around the corner”?
A little bit. A little bit. I’m a big fan of Vox, I’m a big fan of 538. More power to them all. And they’re doing great work. As you know, you were kind of enough to say, Inside.com did too. There have been enough failures of a certain kind that, God willing, that they can avoid the failures that have already happened and may fail in a new way or may succeed. It is interesting, though. When you see — whether it’s BuzzFeed or Vox or 538 or all of them — well, not all of them, but many of which are fantastic in their own way. You know, you don’t want to be like, “Ha, been there, done that, you’re going to be out of business in three years,” because I don’t know that. But I also look at the world I’m in of podcasting, and you’re in. It is certainly interesting to see, having been through various bubbles. You know, I don’t know that we’re in a podcast bubble.
It’s a pretty tiny bubble. I mean, look around.
[laughs] Well, yeah. Yes. You mean this fabulous place?
Smells like beer in here.
Yeah. All I know is it’s a lot harder to keep producers working on my radio show than it was four years ago because …
Because a handful of startups have gone and basically hired everyone that works …
Because of Gimlet and Panoply and all those, yeah.
Yeah, we’d like to hire some of those guys too. We heard they basically just came through WNYC and just took everything that wasn’t bolted to the wall and they now work at Gimlet.
Yeah, that’s what you heard?
Yeah, that’s what I heard.
So I don’t know. I’m glad these startups exist but for the longest time I thought, “Wow, Slate is the only completely legit, enduring, digital native, journalistic startup” and now there are more, and that’s good.
Let’s talk about your show.
Long-running show. How long?
We started broadcasting right after the 2000 election, so almost 16 years.
I’m a big fan. I think I was probably listening to it in podcast form without knowing it was a podcast. It was just something that I was able to download.
Yeah, well, the first time anybody said, “I like your podcast,” was 2009. And I did a spit take, practically. Like, “What?! No, it’s a radio show!”
Right. So it’s this multi-layered radio show that you have multiple themes, you do narrative stories, you do interviews. You go out and talk to people in the real world. Do you see a distinction between a radio show and a podcast? It seems like they’re the exact [same] — they’re just on-demand audio at this point.
It is on-demand audio, however I do think actually there are some distinctions. Which is to say, you know, we’re just talking …
… the conversationalism and informality and I can say dirty words. And all of that are qualities and virtues that podcasting has introduced to the audio world that I think public radio, when they’re wise, are adopting, in the same way that when public radio started and invented its thing 40 years ago, it was different than commercial radio.
So yeah, it’s all radio, but in a certain way, podcasts are to public radio as public radio was to commercial radio then. So it’s all part of the great circle.
It seems like there’s a conversation going back and forth because sure, it’s informal and we’re just two dudes sitting here talking and we could …
Yeah, one of us is in a t-shirt.
I’m wearing a Guinness shirt. It’s my favorite podcasting shirt. But you know, there’s a big movement within podcasting, I think to evolve past two guys talking in a room and let’s do some actual reporting and let’s figure out how to create … Let’s go to WNYC and hire everyone there.
Totally. And if we’re WNYC, let’s start a new division that does nothing but invent podcasts. I was very pleased, again as an old fud, that the great breakthrough podcast was “Serial.” Not just two people talking in a room, but an insane amount of first-rate, world-class journalism done by people who had done radio journalism for a long time.
So I was really pleased. I’m pleased for all the two-guys-sitting-around-talking. Marc Maron, bless you. Peter Kafka, bless you. All of it.
Oh, I got in the same Marc Maron sentence.
But I’m really pleased that that set the standard.
It’s a hard standard to meet. Even “Serial” didn’t meet it the next time out. It was a very good show, but it didn’t have the same kind of attention, it didn’t have the same kind of drama, frankly.
No, it’s tough. But again, in this age of where amateurs can do anything as well as professionals, I was happy to see the professionals vindicated a little bit.
I asked you if you wanted to do a startup, you said, “No, I’m good.” Is there some itch that you want to scratch that you haven’t done yet? Some project you want to take on?
Yeah, over the years I have, like everybody, I’ve written television pilots.
A couple of novels?
Well, novels. I’m going to keep doing the radio show as long as the world seems to want it. But the thing that I haven’t done that I would like to do is a scripted television show. And I’m working on one now that could see the light of day.
Do you want to share?
Ehhh, not really. I mean, it’s a drama, it’s American history, period. Hour-long. And it would be on TV and it would be fantastic!
And everything I know about TV, which is not that much, is boy that’s a collaborative medium. Even if you have full authority over what you’re doing, there’s still a gazillion people working on it. Even in the best of circumstances, that appeals to you?
It does. Magazines — Spy was a very collaborative medium. Radio’s a very collaborative medium. The only thing that I do that isn’t collaborative is writing novels. Even that’s somewhat collaborative because you’ve got an editor and all that. But writing books is pretty [solitary].
It’s you and a room.
It is you and a room. It is your head and a typewriter. So no, it is very collaborative but I am really excited about this idea. I’m really excited about my collaborators. And I’m really excited about what it would mean now in the world. So, yeah, that I’m very excited about. But then call me in six months and I can tell you how it came out.
I will. I want to see the theoretical Kurt Andersen TV show.
I’ll let you go so you can work on it. Thanks, Kurt.
My pleasure, Peter.