New York City was in trouble, but President Gerald R. Ford had no intention of saving the day.
In a speech at the National Press Club in October 1975, Ford promised to veto any bill that would allocate federal money for the city of 8 million as it stood on the brink of bankruptcy. New York City’s financial mess was its own, Ford said, and so was responsibility for righting the ship.
“If we go on spending more than we have, providing more benefits and more services than we can pay for, then a day of reckoning will come to Washington and the whole country, just as it has to New York City,” Ford told his audience in the District. “And so, let me conclude with one question of my own: When that day of reckoning comes, who will bail out the United States of America?”
The front page of the New York Daily News the next day minced no words.
“FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” the headline blared.
Ford eventually signed legislation bailing out New York City, but he later admitted the headline probably cost him the presidency in 1976, when Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter won New York and its 41 electoral college votes, giving him 297 total to Ford’s 240. Ford, who had never said the words “drop dead,” later griped that the headline was “very unfair,” the New York Times reported.
The Daily News on Saturday revived its now-famous headline template to skewer President Trump, a New York City native and former tabloid darling, for his apparent desire to buy Greenland from Denmark. Danish politicians have mocked the idea, while Greenland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said the ice-covered island, a self-governing country, is not for sale.
“FJORD TO TRUMP: DROP DEAD,” the Daily News wrote on its cover over a photo of an iceberg and homes beside an inlet.
The Trump administration has said the Arctic is increasingly important to U.S. national security interests, and the United States has tried to counter attempts by China and Russia to expand their influence there. Greenland was strategically important to the United States during the Cold War because of its nearness to the former Soviet Union and its location halfway between the United States and Northern Europe.
“This idea isn’t as crazy as the headline makes it seem,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) wrote on Twitter about Trump’s desire to buy Greenland. “This a smart geopolitical move. The United States has a compelling strategic interest in Greenland, and this should absolutely be on the table.”
Like the 1975 Daily News headline calling out Ford, the headline slamming Trump comes as the president faces reelection. But any speculation about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election based on the parallel between the two headlines is, of course, pure superstition.
On a practical level, the two headlines are different. The original headline characterized a president as essentially telling New York City to drop dead, while Saturday’s revival imagines Denmark directing the sentiment toward a different president.
The comparison is still interesting, if only because the tabloid newspaper has rarely revived its most well-known headline in the four decades since publication. The second-most-recent “drop dead” headline also involved Trump.
When Trump in June 2017 withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, which regulated greenhouse-gas emissions, the Daily News wrote: “TRUMP TO WORLD: DROP DEAD.” A subhead piled on: “Decides to hell with science, Earth’s future.”
Arthur Browne, who was editor in chief of the Daily News at the time, told Washingtonian that the newspaper’s journalists occasionally propose a “someone-to-someone: drop dead” headline when the event does not merit a statement of that intensity.
“It’s to be reserved only for events that are momentous,” Browne told Washingtonian. “And this one was.”
In the era before people took to Facebook and Twitter to share witticisms, print newspaper headlines offered a chance to lightly or seriously riff on the news of the day. Among journalism’s other most famous headlines is one from the New York Post, which in April 1983 summed up a brutal crime with the headline “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.” A man had fatally shot the owner of a bar in Queens and ordered a female customer to cut off the victim’s head, the New York Post reported.
Daily News headlines periodically pushed Trump’s buttons as a real estate mogul whose wealth bought him a place among New York City’s elite. Trump’s policy of freely giving interviews landed him on the tabloid’s cover dozens of times before the 2016 presidential run that put him in office.
“TRUMP IN A SLUMP,” the Daily News wrote when Trump’s businesses were in a rut. “TRUMP MISSES THE CUT,” a headline announced when he failed to make the Forbes list of the world’s 271 richest people. “TRUMPED!” the newspaper mocked when a judge ruled Trump could not seize a woman’s home to expand his now-defunct casino in Atlantic City
“After he was inaugurated, we’ve kept a very critical eye on him not as a person or candidate,” Browne told Washingtonian in 2017. “This is all about what he does as president now.”