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Dear Donald, Dear Mr. President: A Trump-Nixon 1980s tale

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.

“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.”

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