LORDS OF MISRULE
The Looting of America by the Reagan-Milken Overclass
What We Ought to Do About It Now
“…the social duties of an American gentleman, in particular, require of him a tone of feeling and a line of conduct that are of the last importance to the country. One of the first of his obligations is to be a guardian of the liberties of his fellow citizens. It is peculiarly graceful in the American whom the accidents of life have raised above the mass of the nation
to show himself conscious of his duties in this respect, by asserting at all times the true principles of government, avoiding, equally, the cant of demagogueism with the impracticable theories of visionaries, and the narrow and selfish dogmas of those who would limit power by castes…Liberality is peculiarly the quality of a gentleman. He is liberal in his attainments, opinions, practices and concessions. He asks for himself no more than he is willing to concede to others. He feels that his superiority is in his attainments, practices and principles, which if they are not always moral, are above meanness, and he has usually no pride in the mere vulgar consequence of wealth.”
– James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat, 1838
The Class of ’40
In May, 1990, I received a phone call from a member of the Class of 1940 at Phillips Exeter Academy, my old prep school, inviting me to be the Friday dinner speaker at the class’s fiftieth reunion.
I accepted happily. Exeter occupies a very special place in my heart and memory. My father went there; I followed him thirty years later and four of my children followed me, with a fifth still to come, although as you shall see, that may no longer be in the cards. My own four years at “the Academy” were among the happiest I have known. Mind, body, libido were unleashed. Intellectual challenge and distinction hung in the very air like sunbeams. The pursuit of excellence was the name of the game.
Beyond such considerations, I was frankly flattered at the invitation, which I took to be a tacit endorsement of some of the things I’d been writing over the previous several years in The New York Observer and elsewhere. Much was predicated on values and ideas I considered as much a part of Exeter as its weathered brick. The invitation also happened to come at a propitious time, when I was working out a number of ideas about the decay of America’s “Invisible Infrastructure,” the phrase I use to denote the complex, specifically American framework of values and attitudes which supports our collective life as a nation. People can wail about the decreptitude of our highways and our educational system’s physical plant, but until something is done about the parallel dilapidation of our intangible armature, their plaints will be just so much moaning on the wind.
It seemed likely as well that the 1980s would left the Class of ’40 as depressed as myself. Here was a heavensent opportunity to check my own recollections and beliefs against someone else’s of more or less the same vintage. We represented different slices of the generation shaped by World War II and the postwar decades. I came in at the end. These men, fourteen years older, had arrived at manhood in the heart of that glorious era: born into the great roaring ’20s boom; sent off to Exeter in the trough of the Depression; graduated at the time of Dunkirk and the Nazi conquest of France and mainland Europe. Pearl Harbor would have found them in the middle of sophomore year at college; a number of them would presumably have gone off to war during the next four years.
Following V-J Day, the Class would have returned to college and graduate school(many, I supposed, on the G.I.Bill) and begun its working life in a nation which had emerged from four years of unrestricted warfare unconditionally victorious and physically unscathed. Young people of the present globalized era of diminishing expectations will find this hard to believe, but there was about a decade or so beginning in 1945 when America not only ruled the world, but had all the money as well! It was a time I find aptly characterized by the late Professor Thomas Bergin of Yale in a memorial for his departed colleague (and my beloved friend and teacher) Charles Garside Jr: “…between the end of World War II and Vietnam a sense of stability and even a kind of serenity prevailed…in the country…Things stayed in place, and for a while there was the illusion of permanence in the air.” (Yale Alumni Bulletin, October, 1987).
All in all, the Class of ’40 was on the leading edge of an American generation to whom the fortunes of history would prove to be generally kinder than most before or since. As Exonians, moreover, creamiest of the white urban upper-middle-class creme, my audience could be expected to have to have had the very best of those halcyon days.
That would all now be coming to a close. In May, 1990, the members of the Class would be in their late sixties. Many would have already retired; most of the rest would be nearing the end of their active working lives – in a world vastly changed from the one in which they had gone to work. The United States no longer enjoyed unquestioned domination of global affairs and markets. Viet Nam had cast even our cocksure military hegemony in doubt (the Gulf “war” was still some six months off). Even the torch of moral supremacy guttered in the wake of Watergate.
All things considered, the Class of ’40 struck me as uniquely situated to bear witness: to confirm or repudiate some of my own feelings about America as we entered the final decade of this convulsive century.
Would they share my impression that the country had become hardhearted? Would they echo my outraged astonishment at being confronted almost daily with sights and awarenesses that I as an American had never expected to see in my own country? What about the last decade? Would they too feel that the frenetic moneygrubbing of the ’80s had somehow produced a pettiness of spirit that those of us who knew an earlier America found embarassing, even shaming? As members of the overclass, would they be as put off as I by the antics of the Big New Rich, as disgusted by the obvious corruption of Wall Street and Washington, as outraged by the failure of the nation’s great public and private institutions to give direction to American life? Did they share my fervent hope that the America of Ronald Reagan, Michael Milken and George Bush was an aberration; that soon we would come to our moral senses, “the real America” would return from wherever it had been vacationing, and all would be set to rights?
It would be up to us, I planned to say, the best-fed and best-educated, to take the lead in restoring the values of our youth, the values of our school, to national prominence, in reshaping America to resemble more closely the land of our recollections, to make the America we live in look more like the America we boast about. I planned to quote a favorite line coined by the sports announcer Jack Drees, who for many years broadcast the Kentucky Derby on ABC Radio. Year after year, when the field thundered into the homestretch, Drees would shout into the microphone: “Now, here’s where they run on their pedigree!” It was time for us to run on ours.
I planned to be basically upbeat. This was, after all, an occasion more for celebration and self-congratulation than soul-searching. Although I felt that, since roughly the assassination of President Kennedy, and very much on the watch of the generation which embraced the Class of ’40 and my own Class of ’54, the country had gone to hell in a handbasket, to belabor that point at the end of what would have been a happy and nostalgic day would be ungracious. The business of rekindling old institutional and personal connections can be tiring, and these were people of a certain age.
I expected that the harshness of some of the things I intended to say might be tempered by my audience’s recognition that, unlike many doomsayers, academics particularly, I knew from broad practical first-hand experience what I was talking about. In particular, I knew something about how money is made in America, especially on and via Wall Street. If I wasn’t fooled by the scrim of cant draped by apologists like the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal over what was, plain and simply, the greatest economic con in American history, it was because for thirty years I had been an accomplice before, during and after the fact.
And what was this “con”? A huge (probably close to $6 trillion, all in) escalation of debt-financed consumption, embracing everything from defense systems to consumer goods to multibillion-dollar companies, which effected a massive transfer of the nation’s wealth to the creditor class, a class which, ironically, must be understood to include those debtors – Donald Trump comes to mind – whose borrowings are so so large that their interests and those of their creditors become virtually identical. By the end of the second Reagan term, with the potholes in the nation’s arterial financial highways only beginning to be filled up with taxpayer dollars, America had suffered the equivalent of a fiscal hit and run, committed by those at the apex of the economic heap, abetted by a government corrupted from top to bottom.
I didn’t intend to press – to hammer – this point with the Class of ’40. I would have to tread carefully on the subject of the 1980s. For some in the Class, especially its Wall Streeters, the ’80s would have been exhilarating and all for the good, the best years of their lives. They might agree with me that the United States in 1990 no longer resembled the nation in which they had grown up, but a neither did their bank accounts, and the fat condition of these would settle their minds as to whether the changes had been generally for the better or the worse. There would be some, I guessed, who might be as uneasy in their souls as well-off at the bank. There would be others for whom life had turned out less satisfactorily – for whom America would not have made good on its famous “dream. As I remarked to my wife, the point of such reunions seems to be for is for half the class to show off wealth which the other half wants to borrow.
I didn’t plan, therefore, to speak apocalyptically or critically – to pound the pulpit or point the finger – but I did intend to raise legitimate issues for serious consideration, to be examined in the spirit of a shared rather than adversarial dialogue.
As for my outlook for the ’90s…well, I believe that problems usually contain the germ of their solution: tThe way in frequently suggests the way out. The ’90s would be a time of challenge, I intended to say, and would require that the legacy of the ’80s be faced candidly, clearly and honestly. I intended to leave it at that, notwithstanding that I might feel that candor, clarity and honesty were qualities unknown and unrespected in the value system personified by Reagan and Milken, and for that matter George Bush.
And so, at the appointed hour on an agreeable Saturday evening in late May, 1990, I presented myself at Exeter’s Thompson Gymnasium, the building where, thirty-six years earlier, I had delivered the “history” of the Class of 1954 to an audience of proud parents and relieved faculty, a few of whom, I saw, had been invited to join ’40 on this auspicious occasion.
It turned out to be quite an evening. Here is what I wrote about it in my column in The New York Observer (May 28, 1990):
(I’ll have to locate the column. Basically, what happened was that when I began to describe aspects of America that I thought needed fixing (greed etc), I was booed offstage. There was no point in trying to continue, so I got in my rental car and drove back to Boston.)
Usually, a column inspired by an event is cathartic, but in this case not. The evening refused to die. It kept coming back to me. What did it really mean? Did it mean anything beyond the fact that in one man’s loud opinion the Class of ’40 had chosen the wrong speaker for their fiftieth reunion? That I had presumptuously picked the wrong audience on which to try out certain of my own vexations? After the first, fine careless rapture of shock, I realized that it was all too easy to write deeper significance into the occasion than it merited.
But still…these were supposed to be my people! Were my expectations realistic, then? Had I have romanticized a generation which in the last analysis was no more or no less moneygrubbing and solipsistic than any other? Such were the questions that lingered long after the occasion. These were the people who could best afford to face up to the condition of America as Reagan-Milken-Bush had left it. If they didn’t want to know about it, perhaps the country really had gone to hell!
A month or so afterward, I received (among several thoughtful expressions of apology from members of ’40) a letter which put the issue admirably: “When we graduated in 1940,” wrote the author, a physician in one of the Plains states, “we all felt we had a real purpose. We all felt very much a part of our country and that what we did mattered. We felt a patriotism and this was inbred in us through study of American History and the type of ‘sermons’ that were preached to us…We were steeped in tradition, a tradition of service to our country and our fellow man…the question I wanted to ask during this reunion of my fellow classmates was ‘What had happened to their ambitions and feelings which they graduated with and also I wished to ask some present students of Exeter as well as…present instructors what it was today that had taken the place of the idealism and the goals that we had in the late 1930s?’ Then, as I remember it, it was despotism and dictatorships – depriving the people of their freedom – that was the enemy. What is it today that the young men and women are setting as their goals?”
Well, for one thing, I would have told him: to work on Wall Street. The year before I appeared at Exeter, roughly half the graduating class at Yale, my other alma mater, had signed up to interview Goldman, Sachs. I had written a sharp column about that, provoking an equally acid rebuke in the ’58 Class Notes in the Yale Allumni Bulletin.
I admit it might have been old-fashioned of me to think that young men and women should have loftier goals on their minds than mindless number-crunching in pursuit of deals which of dubious economic merit – except to the promoters (which is the point!) – and demonstrable social counterproductivity. It was understandable that legions of the best and brightest young men and women in the country would be listen to Wall Street’s siren song: the sums being thrown around even after the 1987 downspike would have seduced an anchorite. Nevertheless I found the fact intensely discouraging. Thirty years “on the Street” had left me with the conviction that in ninety-nine individual cases out of a hundred, Wall Street Work added up to a wholesale repudiation of the point of a first class education: assuming (an assumption which by 1988 was highly conjectural) that the point of that education was something more than acquiring a handsomely lettered parchment to dress up an investment-banking office. The best definition I have ever seen of the point of a first-class education was pronounced on the even of World War I by an otherwise obscure Oxford professor of Moral Philosophy: “the main, if not the sole, point of education,” he opined, was to be able to tell “when another man is speaking rot.”
“Rot” is Anglo for “bullshit.” The Reagan-Milken Era was a Golden Age of Bullshit, of casuistries designed to put a gloss of respectability – intellectual, social and cultural – on the subsuming of every meaningful aspect of American life to the cash nexus, of reducing all of socioeconomic and cultural existence to a matter of exchange value – Marx’s great complaint against capitalism. Of the several thousand Wall Street-promoted deals I have looked at in my lifetime, of the few hundred in which I have played an active role as agent or promter, not more than a handful have had as their real object any social or economic good larger than the gratification of the egos of men in corner offices or the lining of the pockets of the higher class of middlemen/parasites: investment bankers, lawyers, tax accountants, public relations counselors. Few have not involved the mulcting, to some degree, of innocent (that is to say, ignorant – designedly so) taxpayers and investors.
These are issues to which I shall return. The more I thought about my encounter with the Class of ’40, the more it seemed to me that these people were “in denial,” as they say. They didn’t want to hear about the dark side of what one prime Reagan-Milken propagandist, Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal, would call the “Seven Fat Years.”
Why should they have? In a way, I was telling them that they were part of the problem, and in a tone of voice that said that I considered that I wasn’t. Their ears weren’t lying to them. I hated the ’80s, hated Ronald Reagan, hated Michael Milken, hated what was being done to the country and had said so – over and over and over and over, even up to that June night at Exeter. It was a losing battle: money not only talks, it can shout down every dissenting voice, and even as I write I take little comfort that it has all turned out just about as I said it would, just about as it had to.
What bothered me most about my evening with the Class of ’40, however, was that it obliged me to deal with some reality-denial of my own and to face up to the explosion of certain home truths which I had spent most of my maturity avoiding (probably a sign of immaturity!), circumnavigating them intellectually time and again despite evidence which only someone deprived of all mental and sensory powers could ignore.
Principal among these was the assumption that the America in which I came of age, the America formed of my imagination and conviction, the America personified by Harry Truman, George Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt, was the sort of nation we truly are. Thanks to the ’80s, to episodes of which my encounter with the Class of ’40 was but one example, I no longer take that as a given. The more I study this country, the more of our history I read, the more closely I analyse the figures in the carpet, the more it seems to me that postwar America may have been a boyhood fantasy born of overreading, an atypical historical aberration shaped by extraordinary, non-recurring historical forces – principally World War II and its aftermath- in effect over the course of the approximate quarter-century from Pearl Harbor to the assassination of JFK – and that it is the America of Ronald Reagan and Michael Milken which is – in its attributes, preferences, tendencies and character – the real McCoy.
I am not the first to make this error. In a famous letter of 1816, the man who drew up the American blueprint deplored that “legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth.” There is something in Jefferson’s words that suggests he believed that “hard labor in the earth” is the true American way, but I think Jefferson got it wrong. Take a look at our history. Booms and busts aren’t made on factory floors, but on the floors of stock and credit exchanges. It is “legerdemain tricks upon paper” which is the true, instinctive, inertially inevitable American commerce, as innate to our scheme of things as baseball and apple pie. What people like me deplored in the ’80s, or Mencken in the 1920s, or the Adams brothers in 1870, or James Fenimore Cooper in 1837, or Jefferson in 1816 is not the exception, it is the rule. It is innate to our commercial character as a nation. Unprovided by history with a native, feudal landed gentry, how natural it seems that our inherent commercial instincts should be those of the real estate speculator and broker, and the vocational cousinage which traffics in engraved pieces of paper. Practically from the moment the first stock exchange set up for business in 1792 in the shade of a buttonwood tree in lower Manhattan, with the ink on the Constitution barely dry, there was launched a metronomic cycle of speculative cycles of paper- and real estate-driven boom and bust. The notes floated by the country banks of Jefferson’s time are next of kin to the junk bonds of ours.
I make this point simply by way of asserting that if we are goinng to fix what seems broke about this country, we have to do so on the basis of the way we are, and not the way we like to think of ourselves. It is all very well to imagine ourselves a great industrial, lunchpail nation, with smokestacks belching into the sky above the fruited plain, but the true course of empire is charted in bankers’ ledgers and county clerks’ mortgage records. It is all very well to assert the need to invest in infrastructure, but the nation might be better served by examining the books of its ruling elite. That is what, in a broad way, I intend to do.
After Jefferson, in the American pantheon of those whom we selectively read to hear good things about ourselves, comes Tocqueville. The Frenchman visited America at a time very like the 1980s: a speculative boom driven by bank credit was in full uproar, bestriding the national awareness like their counterparts in leveraged-buyouts and commercial real estate a century and a half later were promoters of stocks and land rushes. It would all come to grief in a massive wave of bankruptcies and bank failures in 1837, just as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published, but during his sojourn on American soil, that sediment nurtured saplings which – it was assumed – must surely grow to the sky.
“The prosperity seemed limitless and without a flaw, ” writes Robert Sobel in his history of American booms and busts. Here is Philip Hone, the diarist, writing early in 1836: “Everything in New York is at an exorbitant price. Rents have risen 50 percent for the next year. I have sold my house, it is true, for a large sum; but where to go I know not.” To anyone who watched the Manhattan real estate market in the ’80s, Hone’s words must have an eerie echo. By 1840, Hone was bankrupt.
So great was the surplus of revenue produced for the Federal Government that a bill would be passed in January, 1837, calling for redistribution of the windfall to the states in four installments. The fourth installment would not be paid. In May, 1837, the credit madness imploded and there ensued a financial crisis – the first in forty-five years – which would last well into the next decade. In the first year of the crash, over six hundred banks would fail.
Tocqueville was too early to see the madness in full flower. It is interesting to guess what he might have written had he stuck around another five years. I doubt it would sound exactly like this: “… the Americans put something heroic into their way of trading …The whole of life is treated like a game of chance, a time of revolution, or the day of a battle…Choose any American at random, and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous and, above all, an innovator,” (Book I, Part II, Chap.10). In this passage, he sounds like someone who has been spending too much time with stockbrokers.
Five years after the 1837 Crash, another visitor set down his impressions, a visitor perhaps better acquainted with the way Wall Street works than the aristocratic Frenchman. This writer would observe: “Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operations, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century…I recollect remarking on the bad effects such gross deceits must have when they exploded, in generating a want of confidence abroad, and discouraging foreign investment: but I was given to understand that this was a very smart scheme by which a deal of money had been made: and that its smartest feature was that they forgot these things abroad, in a very short time, and speculated again, as freely as ever.” (Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842, Chapter XVIII).
As Michael Milken might say, now that’s more like it!
Like Petronius, or Juvenal, or Moliere, Dickens would have found the 1980s vastly entertaining, full of the sort of pretensions and self-contradictions on which satirists feast. It would have been funny, that is, if it hadn’t been for real.
It was, we were solemnly informed by Reaganaut dogsbodies like The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and George Gilder, a golden age of can-do private-sector entrepreneurialism. And yet, to anyone with a sharp ear, behind the clink of coin could be heard the unmistakable sowlike snufflings of insiders sucking voraciously at the public teat. The full faith and credit of ordinary taxpayers was being deployed to underwrite the creation of an economic “overclass.” This would be, in my eyes at least, its most baneful hypocrisy, made even more unendurable by the new overclass’s conduct of the advantages it used its taxpayer-underwritten new wealth to buy.
My repugnance was partly grounded in taste, partly in sheer amazement. Centimillionaires were being minted daily. Many were people I’d known for quite a while, of whose abilities and capacities I had a clear and accurate idea. It seemed clear that something, some form of wealth-creating pollen perhaps, or a flotilla of undiscriminating fairy godmothers, was loose in the air; in more than one case, supernatural forces had to be at work. Of course it was neither of these: what was at work was mindless, hyperabundant, risk-rinsed, fee-driven credit. For about five years, anything and anyone could get financed.
Some – a few – were content to keep their heads down and count their blessings. Others displayed an arrogance and presumptuousness that gave teeth to Montesquieu’s observation in the Persian Letters: “…Providence is to be admired for the manner in which it shares out wealth: if it had been granted only to good people, it would not have been possible to differentiate clearly enough between it and virtue, and its worthlessness would not have been fully appreciated. But when you consider which people have accumulated the largest amounts of it, you come at last, through despising rich men, to despising riches.” (Letter 98, trans. C.J.Betts).
In observing the spectcle, in writing and speaking about it, I often found myself in the position of the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
I could picture myself squatting at curbside, in the very front row of a clamorous throng waiting to see and cheer the emperor and his court. It was quite a parade.
First to pass by would be the imperial brass band, led by a high-stepping drum majorette suspiciously resembling Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown. Behind her, bleating, squalling and blatting, would follow a serried motley of publicists and gossipists, editors and staff writers from the glitz and celebrity press, hostpersons of radio and television celebrity shows.
Next, bells atinkling and rattles a-rattling, would come the jesters: a buzzing, hand-waving, pinky-pointing retinue of dress designers, caterers, florists, interior decorators, socialites-for-hire and other Lifestyle Parasites, “glib and slippery creatures” spawned by “the dazzling gloss of prosperity,” as Hazlitt characterized such people.
Then, in a shift to a more serious key, would come the High Priests, robed and hooded by Valentino and Armani, walking with ponderos dignity, bearing garishly-painted processional banners glorifying “The Death of Decorum,” “The Apotheosis of Mammon,” and “The Triumph of the Second-Rate.” As these went by, the crowd would fall silent, the people would cross themselves in a figuration of the dollar sign in the way that once upon a time they placed their hands above their hearts when the flag passed. Overhead, like a noisome aerial escort, pass strange pterodactyl-like creatures with the features of Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky and Charles Keating, in formations so tight that the beating of their scabrous wings would momentarily darken the sun.
At long last, the Emperor would arrive, waving a silken topper spangled with stars and stripes. His features would change kaleidoscopically: now he would seem a grotesque taking dummy, made-up and dyed, chemically tan and pompadoured, with an amiable, vague grin; now crooked-smiling and ill-made, with a crooked smile like a skull’s rictus under an ill-fitting toupee that looks like a bad joke on a corpse; now wispy and WASPY, obviously as narrow of soul as of body, all angles and elbows, limbs beating this way and that in frantic confusion, like the wings of a netted bird.
In the buzzing crowd behind me I would hear tremendous oohing and aahing about the ruler’s new clothes. From my angle, I could see little, the potentate being closely surrounded by the persons of the imperial household, palace guards and palace wizards, some martial and helmetted, others in conical hats and robes marked with astrological signs, all accompanied by their personal book agents. Among them I would recognize The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley, trained Beltway monkey Paul Craig Roberts, George Gilder, Irving Kristol and other necromancers-in-ordinary to the Age of Greed. But instead of the maces and wands of office normally borne by courtiers and functionaries, they would brandish outsized stalks of spinach.
But what exactly would the Emperor be wearing? I could hear the crowd gasp its approval like a fashion editor at a St.Laurent opening: look, see how splendid are the emperor’s raiments, how artful, how chic, how a la mode, how too, too divine, how transforming!
How can they tell? The old boy’s courtiers are packed in so closely around him, all I can make out are flashes of splochety, suety pink flesh. Then, for an instant, there is a break in the human screen, and I can see the old boy plain and – what do you know? – the old sonofabitch is buck, bare-ass naked!
“Hey, everybody,” I cry out, “wait a minute! The Emperor’s naked! He has no clothes on!”
At this moment, I become another fictional personage with whom I have closely identified ever since I made her acquaintance.
She is a little girl who makes a single unforgettable appearance in a famous New Yorker cartoon drawn by Carl Rose in 1926, with a caption said to have been written by S.J.Perelman, a man who should have lived to see the ’80s in all their gilded squalor. More than once, watching the antics of the high and mighty, I murmured to myself: “Sidney, thou shouldst’ be living at this hour.”
Rose’s drawing shows an androgynous little girl and her mother at the dinner table. The mother is vulpine and dressed to kill, very self-consciously bon ton , surely in the ’80s a charter subscriber to Vanity Fair and every other guide to the “in,” the “smart,” and the “chic”. She is obviously putting in her mandatory five minutes with her daughter before heading out for a swell-elegant evening on the town.
The daughter sits sullen and dubious, the picture of gloom. On the table before her is a plateful of leafy vegetable.
“Eat your broccoli, dear,” says the mother.
“I say it’s spinach,” the child replies, “and I say the hell with it!”
Exactly my view of the ’80s, which is why I outfit my metaphorical courtiers with stalks of the stuff.
By “spinach, I mean of course cant. I mean rot, bullshit, bushwah, tommyrot, snake oil, whim-wham, codswallop, lip service, bunkum, buncombe, hokum, moonshine, pishtosh, flapdoodle, lily-gilding, claptrap, doublespeak, humbug, hypocrisy, and dozens of other esoteric tropes of dissimulation, euphemism or evasion up to and including outright lying, which in the past decade was defined as “positioning the truth.” What James Fenimore Cooper in his not dissimilar day called the “fulsome, false and meretricious eulogiums” of a nation buying into the sweet con of a crack team of bunco artists.
Cooper actually echoes Tocqueville: “The Americans are impatient of the slightest criticism and insatiable for praise. They are… seldom quite satisfied by by even the most fulsome eulogy. They are at you the whole time to make you praise them, and if you do not oblige, they sing their own praises…Their vanity is not only greedy but also restless and jealous. It is both mendicant and querulous.”( Democracy in America, Volume II, Part III, Ch.16). In the entire history of the nation, no one has understood this better than Ronald Reagan and his handlers. They saw that their own brand of spinach would do for American self-regard what the ord9inary kind did for the musculature of Popeye’s forearms, and so they dished it out by the cubic yard, in every form imaginable, in enough varieties, tastes and shades to win every prize at every garden show held since Adam first stuck his spade in the primordial dirt.
Living in the ’80s was like wandering through a jungle of giant mutant spinach plants. Plants with stalks stouter than redwoods and taller than Jack’s beanstalk, with leaves thick enough to block out the light.
It came in a hundred varieties. There was economic spinach, political spinach, fiscal spinach, Wall Street spinach, Beltway spinach, Hollywood spinach, ethical spinach, art spinach, literary spinach, lifestyle spinach, celebrity spinach. So pervasive was it, I wouldn’t I wouldn’t have been surprised if some politico had proposed to replace the arrows and lightning bolt in the talons of the national eagle with stalks of leafy green Spinacia oleracia.
The economic spinach, dipped in gold leaf in the style invented by the chefs of an earlier Gilded Age, was positively hallucogenic although it would prove as ultimately lethal as Jonestown Kool-Aid. Under its spell, in money matters, black became white, day night; money owed was money owned; the way to get out of debt was to borrow more. Under its influence, the public watched and applauded as the government flooded the economy with trillions in borrowed money and called it a boom. As a feat of illusion, it was sensational, (as I have said) the greatest economic confidence trick I could ever expect to see, breathtaking in its scope and audacity, and scarcely less remarkable for the ease with which it went down.
Popeye, so to speak, was among the Age of Spinach’s principal household deities. When it came to the preparation of spinach, Humpty Dumpty served as chef de cuisine, and also as chief speechwriter, drafter of prospectuses, and arbiter of accounting standards. “When I use a word,” the talking egg had informed Alice huffily, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
And what Humpty Dumpty could do with numbers was sensational, as many a junk-bond buyer would discover.
People with no liking for spinach by and large went hungry. Consigned to the scullery, we amused ourselves as best we could and quarrelled over crumbs of morality and commonsense. Most days I sat in the corner and, in the spirit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, counted the ways I hated the age.
There was so much to abhor. The mind-boggling tolerance for hypocrisy and cant bespoke a pervasive moral, political and rhetorical cowardice and evasiveness, characterized by inversion, misspeaking and other distortions of language. In the public discourse, it became impossible to phrase, let alone settle arguments on their merits. Noise counted for more than sense.
Following the example of Ronald Reagan, the nation adopted the principle that the unexamined life is the only life worth living. Soon mediocrity was everywhere in the ascendant. Standards declined in every area which mattered to me, from spelling to etiquette to art. The sneer became the standard form of judgment; the put-down the basic trope of analysis. Slovenliness became the guiding principle of craft. Nothing produced in America – plays, buildings, novels, policies, automobiles, high school graduates – was required by the country at large to be well-made or thought-out, and most critics served their calling only with their lips. Inevitably, volume came to be more important than pitch. Publicity equalled achievement. Wealth was meaningful proof of wisdom and virtue. What money could not buy, or hubub claim, such as honor and merit, was deemed superfluous to the great business of getting and spending, which would secure the esteem of headwaiters, dressmakers and interior decorators, and open the way to the ultimate circle of heaven: flattering exposure in the lifestyle or celebrity media.
Commotion – frequently euphemized as “energy” – was given the name of art, cultural value became calculable solely as a function of quantity: book sales, column inches and fractions of airtime. Press releases took the place of critical evaluation. The pollster, the focus group and the flatulent offerings of the public relations “consultant” (in my youth: “press agent”) were accepted not only as indices of quality, but as elemental standards of good and bad. It followed that price and financeability became the defining yardsticks of value.
The middleman was lord of the day. High visibility brokers, commissionaires and agents were more influential and celebrated than their principals: executives, centerfielders or, God knows, authors. Every enterprise, commercial, hogh-cultural or low was reduced by these, with their Sammy Glick mentality, to the calculus of the deal or promotion. Never pausing to catch breath, to learn, to refine, they spread a trail of vulgarity through every field they entered.
Any bill of particulars would also include the age’s culture-deadening coarseness of spirit, its incivility, the effrontery and shameless opportunism of its notable dramatis personae, its worship of portability and distaste for permanence, its rapacity and lack of principle, its mental and moral shiftiness, its cupidity, sleaziness, and lack of social conscience or generosity. It was an age seemingly unable to grasp the relationship between cause and effect unless the interval between the two was as infinitesimal as the alphanumeric wink of a computer trading screen.
Culture and society became utterly bottom-driven. The risen overclass went remained downmarket in its soul: lowbrow in spirit and conscience, audience-sniffing, poll-driven, utterly in thrall to the mass-market, shaped by rather than shaping public taste, wholly committed to whatever might yield the biggest grosses – a fact which gives the lie to the notion that the 80s was a Golden Age of the “bottom line.” What the decade was a Golden Age of, was the creaming rich fees and commissions off the top of deals.
There was also a surpassing lack of respect for the territoriality, privacy, rights, sensitivities (which in my lexicon has nothing to do with “political correctness”), work, originality, precedence, and equity of others. The Golden Rule, it seemed, had been melted down for coin. Disgrace and shame no longer functioned as controlling principles of private civility and order. Like other “public” sentiments, they had sunk without a trace in the vast mushy Sargasso of self-esteem-seeking which is the most disinctive feature of the present-day mental landscape.
None of this seemed to square with the world I thought I had grown up in, but it was hardly new to America. Here is Charles Francis Adams (Henry’s brother) writing in 1870:
“No portion of our system was left untested, and no portion showed itself to be sound. The stock exchange revealed itself as a haunt of gamblers and a den of thieves; the offices of our great corporations appeared as the secret chambers in which trustees plotted the spoliation of their wards; the law became a ready engine for the furtherance of wrong, and the ermine of the judge did not conceal the eagerness of the partisan; the halls of legislation were transformed into a mart in which the price of votes was higgled over, and laws, made to order, were bought and sold; while under all, and through all, the voice of public opinion was silent or was disregarded.
“…Failure seems regarded as the one unpardonable crime, success as the all-redeeming virtue, the acquisition of wealth as the single worthy aim of life…Ten years ago such revelations as these…would have sent a shudder through the community, and would have placed a stigma on every man who had had to do with them. Now they merely incite others to surpass them by yet bolder outrages and more corrupt combinations…The only remedy lies in a renovated public opinion.” (“A Chapter of Erie,” in Chapters of Erie, 1871)
But who would “renovate” public opinion if not the people at the top? That was the message I was trying to put across to the Class of ’40. I had been raised within the American elite and educated in the notion that with privilege went responsibility. All the more so when one saw money being made the way it was in the era of Reagan and Milken, thanks to utterly reckless and cynical fiscal policy and the socialized deregulation of institutional credit. The Wall Street Journal might trumpet it as “wealth creation,” but what it amounted to was no less than the wholesale embezzlement by the overclass of the financial property of future American generations. About a year after I slunk from the rostrum in Thompson Gymnasium, I came across a book which said many of things I was trying to find the right words for. Written during what we might think of as our first Gilded Age, I have frankly taken it as the model for this book. It is James Fenimore Cooper’s The American Democrat, first published in 1839.
I learned of Cooper’s book serendiptously, while on a journalistic asignment in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. I had brought along as a travelling companion that most browsable of volumes, Louis Kronenberger’s “Atlantic” Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1971). The sun was setting on Passamaquoddy Bay outside my hotel window when I chanced upon the entry for “Cooper, James Fenimore,” whom I knew mainly as the author of Settlers ‘n Indians spellbinders. The entry was written by Robert Penn Warren; my eye lighted on these words, which were evidently not about The Last of the Mohicans: “(Cooper) saw the rising Whig plutocracy, not the mob, as the most dangerous enemy of democracy. The key of Cooper’s criticism was the fear that a majority, swayed by popular passion manipulated by wealth, would create a tyranny devoid of justice and taste…The only counterweight he saw to such a tyranny lay in those rare individuals who were both thoughtful and independent, and more broadly in a class of ‘gentlemen,’ informed and public-spirited, which might stand against the irrationalities of the democratic system.”
To someone fed to the teeth with the vulgar, grubbing behavior of the people at the top of the American heap, with an era that could make a hero out of Donald Trump, with what seemed the wholesale repudiation of everything I considered myself to have been taught about the duties of station and the obligations of advantage – and yet convinced that only from the top of the heap could the path of righteousness be sighted and regained – Cooper sounded just the ticket. I perused the bibliography at the end of the entry and guessed that The American Democrat was the book I would be wanting. On my return to New York, I found to my surprise that it was still in print as a Penguin.
It was a revelation, about the best book on this country I know, in many respects a helpful antidote to Tocqueville. Few people seem to have read it or heard of it, including the roughly two dozen great and good to whom I have given copies. Cooper’s reputation is largely based on his romantic tales of the frontier, Classic Comics staples such as The Last of the Mohicans and Leatherstocking, and this may militate against his acceptance as a serious social commentator. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. does Democrat justice in The Age of Jackson, but it doesn’t figure in such highly regarded tours d’horizon as Hofstadter Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), or, more surprisingly, John P.Diggins’ The Lost Soul of American Politics (1984), by my lights one of the landmarks of American intellectual history.
Interestingly enough, Cooper’s book was first republished by Knopf in 1931, amid the rubble of another frenzy of paper speculation. Books are not revived by chance, but because someone believes they have something to say to a specific time. The Introduction to the new edition was by H.L.Mencken. “How many other treatises on politics have held up for a century?” asks Mencken. He goes on to make the point about which my evening with the Class of ’40 had left me circling uneasily.
“(Cooper) saw clearly how little genuine aristocracy is a matter of privilege and how much a matter of responsibility. If he urges his ‘superior’ Americans to to oppose the encroachments of the mob, it is not because it will work them any private benefit but because it will work a benefit to the nation…In large part his book is devoted to an argument that the gentleman, after all, has a plausible place in a democratic society, if only as a standing protest against the levelling that everywhere goes on…He launched himself against the theory, first rising in his time, that a Congressman was no more than an office boy for his constituents, bound to carry out their whims. Today we confront a Congress made up of men who play the limber jenkins, not indeed to their constituents, but to the rogues and charlatans who inflame and prey upon their constituents…”
Cooper was no socialist before his time. He stood squarely for private property, both tangible and intellectual. In fact, he anticipated and put down “communism” even while Karl Marx was making notes in the Reading Room of the British Museum. “As property is the base of all civilization,” Cooper writes, “its existence and security are indispensable to social improvement. Were it possible to have a community of property, it would soon be found that no one would toil, but that men would be disposed to be satisfied with barely enough for the supply of their physical wants, since none would exert themselves to obtain advantages solely for the use of others.”
Cooper’s sense of his country remains idealistic, however, derived principally from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution rather than from the 1838 version of IRS Form 1040. To give the flavor of the man and the book, here are a few choice passages:
– On Commerce: “It is a mistake to suppose commerce favorable to liberty. Its tendency is to a monied aristocracy, and this, in effect, has always been the polity of every community of merchants. Commerce is an enemy of despotic power…from which…it has obtained its reputation of sustaining freedom; but, as a class, merchants will always be opposed to the control of majorities. …
“… every transfer of property leaves a profit with the merchant, he has a disposition to increase his gains, by pushing his transactions beyond the just limits of trade. This disposition is best checked by the penalties, but in a country like this, in which no such penalty exists, the consequence is to produce an unbroken succession of commercial reverses, that effect the value of all the property in the nation, almost periodically.”
– On the Adulation of Wealth: “A people that deems the possession of riches its highest source of distinction, admits one of the most degrading of all influences to preside over its opinions. At no time, should money ever be ranked as more than a means, and he who lives as if the acquisition of property were the sole end of his existence, betrays the dominion of the most sordid, base, and grovelling motive, that life offers.”
– On mutual respect: “The entire complexion, and in many respects, the well being of society, depends on the deportment of its different members, to each other. It behooves the master to be kind to the servant, the servant to be respectful and obedient to his master; the young and inexperienced to defer to the aged and experienced; the ignorant to attend to the admonitions of the wise, and the unpolished to respect the tastes and habits of the refined.”
– On public opinion: “Public opinion has got a wrong, if not a dangerous direction, already in this country, on several essential points. It has a fearfully wrong direction on the subject of the press, which it sustains in its tyranny and invasions on private rights, violating all sanctity of feeling, rendering men indifferent to character, and, indeed, rendering character itself of little avail, besides setting up an irresponsible and unprincipled power that is stronger than the government itself.’
On trade (readers in 1992 will want to substitute “Japan” for “England”): “As many of the interests of this country are opposed to the interests of (other) nations, efforts are constantly made to influence opinion here, im favor of interests there. The doctrine of free trade (has) been got up by English writers, to prevent other states from resorting to the same expedients to foster industry, that have so well succeeded in Great Britain…while America trifles with her welfare, like a vigorous youth who is careless of his health through reliance on his constitution, England watches over every material concern with the experience, vigilance and distrust of age.”
Finally, Cooper would also have understood the Milken dimension of the deregulated ’80s, which produced high financial crime and spoliation. “If the citizen is careless of his duties, regardless of his rights, and indifferent to the common weal, it is not difficult to foresee the triumph of abuses, peculation and frauds. It is as unreasonable to suppose that the private servant who is not overlooked, will be faithful to his master, as to suppose that the public servant who is not watched, will be true to his trusts. In both cases a steady, reasoning, but vigilant superintendance is necessary to the good of all concerned; to the agent by removing the temptation to err, and to the principal by securing an active attention to his interests.”
Of long-descended American roots, Cooper, returning to his native land after a long sojourn abroad, was shocked at what he saw and said so in plain English. What grated him most was the abdication of the nation’s “best and the brightest” of their responsibilities of station. A century and a half later, I share his outrage – for many of the same reasons.
My outrage is not political. This book isn’t a tract or manifesto, although it suggests certain solutions to problems that those so-minded might condemn as political. My own politics are defined by a preference for “free markets and a tradition of responsibilty for one’s fellow man,” (David Willetts, The Modern Conservative). I do not consider the bootlicking political economy predicated on selfishness which the radical, neoconservative right professes to be conservative any more than I consider a stockbroker in a Guards tie entitled to the respect due to a veteran of El Alamein. I do consider myself a true conservative: one who examines the bathwater to see whether there might be a baby in it. This seems to confuse people: I have been called a left-winger at one end of a dinner table while at the same time at the other end I’m being damned as a Tory elitist. So it goes.
I suppose to some degree my feelings about the country resemble those of Henry Adams, who also grew up in the most comfortable and refined circumstances. I admire Adams in many ways, although I realize this entails a certain amount of risk. Adams is regarded as a prize antisemite – with some justice. In the course of writing about and against the ’80s, when I pointed fingers I named names; some of those names happened to be Jewish, and so I was accused of antisemitism myself, as I was when my 1990 novel Hanover Place described an outbreak of antisemitism as a side-effect of general economic anxiety and anti-Wall Street sentiment. Although, as I write, antisemitism seems to be breaking out throughout the West, I take no pleasure in having read the tea leaves somewhat accurately.
What I gladly admit to sharing with Adams is a feeling of having known better times and better standards than today. As I have been, Adams was attacked for hating his country. In his defense, James Russell Lowell noted that it is “not a real paradox to affirm that a man’s love of his country may often be gauged by his disgust at it.”
It is one thing to complain, however; another to do something about it. One place to begin is to tape shut the mouths of those who have nothing but words to contribute: who say we need “more public investment,” but neglect to specify where, who throw billions of dollars around verbally, but neglect to specify how these sums are to be raised by a polity which has borrowed itself into a corner.
This country suffers from a plague of full-time talkinghead experts, a peerage of the mouth. By their credentials shall ye know them. If I were king, one of my first acts would be to shut down every last MBA and LL.B factory. It is not an accident of circumstance that America has declined as the latter have prospered.
I would also require that pundits be licensed, in the same sense that drivers are. Just as the motor vehicle authorities use a point system for moving violations, so should the Pundit Bureau monitor opinion-shapers. Undrr my system, pundits would be required to include a minimum of three hard, precise, practical solutions to the social, economic or political problems lamented, analyzed or addressed in an Op-Ed piece or TV blab. Failure to do so would cost points. Accumulate too many, and the penalties would be Draconian by the standards of those punished: no Op-Ed exposure in The New York Times or Washington Post, no “panelizing” on handsomely-remunerated symposia, and, above all (the pundit equivalent of capital punishment) no appearances on “McNeill Lehrer.”
Since I want to keep my license – and set a good example – the penultimate chapter of this book suggests a few hard answers to difficult problems: thoughts as to how to achieve defined goals by working within present realities.
I miss the America of my youth, but this book is not about trying to turn back the clock. A trick of history landed my generation on earth in what seems a golden time but may very well be an optical illusion. I would like to see America revive and reconstitute some significant part of the remembered essence of those years as a stimulus to practical action. I think we can.
It ,may be that “my America” was an illusion, but so what, provided enough people believe in it. Certainly we seem obsessed enough with the trappings of the mythic past as conceived by Ralph Lauren, who has profitably reimagined – I guess that is the word – the way in which the American and English upper classes furnished themselves and their residences during the 1920s and 1930s, the Golden Age of Anglo twithood. But that was about as far as the backreach has gone. There is more to renascence than accessorization. Isn’t substance also revivable? The Renaissance of the fifteeth century was a massive revival of antique values and culture, but no one in Florence and Padua went about in togas. It was the ideas which mattered.
Tocqueville observed: “…sometimes there comes a time in the life of nations when old customs are changed, mores destroyed, beliefs shaken, and the prestige of memories has vanished…Then men see their country only by a weak or doubtful light; their patriotism is not centered on the soil, which in their eyes is just inanimate earth, nor on the customs of their ancestors, which they have been taught to regard as a yoke, nor on religion, which they doubt, nor on the lawgiver, whom they fear and scorn. So they find their country nowhere, recognizing neither its own nor any borrowed features, and they retreat into a narrow and unenlightened egoism…
“What can be done in such a condition. Retreat. But nations do not retreat to the feelings of their youth any more than men return to the innocent tastes of their infancy; they may regret them, but they cannot bring them back to life. Therefore it is essential to march forward and hasten to make the people see that individual interest is linked to that of the country, for disinterested patriotism has fled beyond recall.” (Exact citation TK)
This sort of disinterested patriotism is a luxury affordable in peacetime only by the overclass. This is my main point. Only the overclass possesses the security, the power, the field position, the tactical advantage to harbor idealism and to convert it materially. The question is how to mobilize that power.
On the morning of Trafalgar, Nelson flew the famous signal “England expects every man will do his duty” from the top-gallants of H.M.S. Victory. Many a man in the fleet would have drawn inspiration from those fine words alone. Others would have found their enthusiasm for their duty sharpened less by their commander’s fine words than by the presence on the horizon of hostile men of war on the horizon or at their backs of glowering boatswains armed with marlinspikes and cat o’ nine tails.
Those incentives work best which are tantamount to coercion. Sheer survival is a more powerful economic incentive than sum-of-the-digits tax depreciation.
Writing of “the Duties of Station” in The American Democrat, Cooper observed: “Whenever the enlightened, wealthy, and spirited of an affluent and great country, seriously conspire to subvert democratical institutions, their leisure, money, intelligence and means of combining, will be found too powerful for the ill-directed and conflicting efforts of the mass. It is therefore, all important, to enlist a portion of this class, at least, in the cause of freedom, since its power at all times renders it a dangerous enemy.”
And here is Scott Fitzgerald: “The best of America was the best of of the world. France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of an idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men…It was a willingness of the heart.”
In the final analysis, it is the recapture, however achieved, of that willingness by the people who can afford the best cardiac care which is the subject of this little book.