ERSATZ: AN ESSAY CONCERNING GOOD OL' BOYSThis is my question for this morning, asked seriously, because it needs to be asked: what is it Americans have against the American Dream? Maybe the question would be better asked this way: what is it Americans have against men and women who achieve the American Dream? The Dream itself seems to be alive and well. It's so popular the Republican Party has chosen it as a basis for domestic policy, or at least what they say is their basis for domestic policy. And some versions of the Dream seem to be doing well, too. We've got no resentment of rags to riches stories if the riches happen to come from the lottery, for instance, or from a disability lawsuit, or even in an entertainment field like movies or sports. Look at any other field, though, and you begin to see something peculiar. Americans don't just dismiss the men and women who have started from the bottom, worked hard all their lives and made it to the top. They actively hate them.
Okay, I'll admit, I didn't start thinking about this this morning, or even a couple of days ago. I've known most of my life that the people immediately around a successful person--their childhood neighbors and friends and enemies; their old elementary and high school teachers; their cousins and other relatives--often can't stand the single person in their midst who made it out and made it up. I saw what happened to my father when he was dragged to the sort of family gathering that always took place at my Aunt Dot's house: the pointed questions; the prickly resentment; the aggressive belligerence. My father wasn't the only one, either. My cousins don't like me any more than their parents liked my father, and my late husband's family--although light years saner than any branch of mine--sometimes had similar problems with him. I've known well five people who were born into lower middle class families and went on to achieve national reputations, two in journalism, two in finance, and one in law. They all ran into a wall of angry wariness whenever they came home. With one exception, they all stopped coming home. The exception built himself an eight thousand square foot house on top of the biggest hill in town and made a point of driving down Main Street every Saturday morning in his Mercedes Benz.
Up until recently, I've thought that the reactions these people got from the people around them were essentially personal. It wasn't success people resented, but having to watch it come to somebody they knew. It's one thing to admire a brilliant trajectory from afar. You can always tell yourself that the person was special and nothing at all like yourself: smarter, more talented, maybe singled out by destiny or fate. It's something else to face the fact that the guy with his picture on the cover of Time sat next to you in ninth grade algebra and wasn't even much better at algebra than you. You begin to wonder if there was always something different about him that you didn't notice, and if he was always sitting there quietly looking down on you.
It began to occur to me that there was something else going on here--something bigger--during the Democratic primary season last year, when I spent a little time going to meet-ups for former General Wesley Clark. Clark, after all, could be the poster boy for the American Dream. He was raised poor in Little Rock, Arkansas. He went to public schools. He worked his butt off and got admitted to West Point. He worked his butt off some more and got a master's degree in philosophy from Oxford. He worked his butt off some more and reached the upper levels of the Army brass. He started from nothing. He ended up Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces for NATO. If I wrote that as a screenplay and produced it as a mini series, sixteen million people would be glued to their sets for a week, cheering him on.
Out in the real world, nobody but his supporters was cheering him on. In fact, what was happening was that a whole lot of people, and not just his opponents in the primaries, were working very hard to put across one particular idea: that that resume of his wasn't all that impressive. They weren't attacking his positions on the issues. They weren't dissecting his experience and claiming it wasn't suitable training for the Presidency. They weren't even digging into his private life. Instead, they were looking at a breathtaking record of achievement and saying: so what? that's not so much!
On paper, of course, that wasn't the way the charge was being made--although I did see one poster to a newsgroup simply deny that Clark had had "a spectacularly successful military career." (Hint: coming from nowhere and ending up a four star general and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO is a spectacularly successful military career. Ask any captain who retires without ever making major.) Most of the time, though, people went at it sideways, concentrating on the fight with the Pentagon that led to Clark's resignation, or hinting darkly that his fellow officers didn't "like" him or thought he was crazy. That left a number of questions unanswered. If Clark was so disliked, or had such a reputation as a lunatic, why was it that he, and not somebody else, had gotten all those promotions and responsibilities? Does the United States military customarily hand over the reins of NATO to the most distasteful lunatics in its midst? What about the European commanders he worked with, most of whom respected the hell out of him? Were they all on drugs?
To the extent that this sort of thing was being put out by Republicans scared to death of the kind of inroads a Clark candidacy could make into President Bush's electoral base, or Democrats who wanted to win the primary fight and run for President themselves, the stories were predictable and not very alarming. What was alarming, however, was the extent to which this tack was being taken by people with no axe to grind on any practical level, and especially the extent to which it resonated with the broader American public. Let's get real about what we're looking at here. Tens of thousands of people, many of whom had at best graduated from high school, took a look at a resume that included a top-of-the-class graduation from West Point, a graduate degree from Oxford University, four general's stars, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary knighthoods from both the Netherlands and Britain, France's Legion of Honor, a stint as Director for Strategic Plans and Policy for the Pentagon, a couple of best selling books, a second career as a political commentator for CNN, and, yes, that NATO thing, and all they could think of to say was: he's crazy, and nobody likes him anyway.
The situation is a little more complicated when it comes to Bill Clinton, but less so than you might think. Talk about being a poster boy for the American Dream--what was it we were all told when we were children? America is a place where anybody can grow up to be President. William Jefferson Clinton was most certainly anybody. He'd not only been born poor, he'd been born the next best thing to trailer trash, and the rest of his family still looked it. Even his mother was an embarrassment on the campaign trail. Loud, brash, cheap, and not exactly ready for prime time, she came across on television like the comic relief hairdresser companion on a bad sitcom. His half brother Roger was worse, a sodden yahoo with a tendency to run afoul of the law in the way of small-time small-town hoods: a minor drug deal here, a drunken driving incident there. His father died before he was born. His stepfather was a raving alcoholic who beat up his mother on a semi-regular basis. There are thousands of boys like the boy Bill Clinton was in Arkansas in 1960. Most of them end up working in gas stations, if they're lucky.
What Bill Clinton did instead was to bust his butt--there are a lot of busted butts in this essay--and get a scholarship to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. Then he busted his butt some more, graduated near the top of his class, and got a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Then he came back to the States, taught law for a while, and was elected Governor of Arkansas for the first time at the age of thirty two. Okay, it's not quite a Wesley Clark-level list of accomplishments, but it's not bad, and it's certainly better than most of us will ever do. So how did America respond to the resume?
They responded by behaving as if it weren't there. Underneath all the Republican hysteria about sex and corruption was another theme, a background percussion rhythm that concentrated on one thing and one thing only: Bill Clinton not only came from trailer trash, he was still trailer trash. Georgetown, Oxford, the governor's mansion, the White House--none of it really mattered. The only difference between Bill Clinton and his stepbrother Roger was--well, there wasn't any difference, really. They were both just hick town losers, without morals or self discipline, and certainly without intellect. Roger Clinton was getting what he deserved. Bill Clinton was getting above himself.
It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which everything about the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton rested on this premise and this premise alone. Even the Monica Lewinsky scandal was more about this than anything else. Look at Bill Clinton, acting just like the roadhouse tom cat he really was. And look at the women he picked to act out with. They weren't Marilyn Monroe, or beltway debutantes, or a crime boss's favorite girlfriend. They were big-haired floosies. Paula Jones was trailer trash herself. Monica Lewinsky just looked it. Life at the White House was an episode from the Jerry Springer show: cheap booze, trashy women, Freudian cigar tricks, and public confessions.
I could throw out a few more cases for illustration--everything from the weird reactions to Bill Gates to the media's periodic forays into psychoanalyzing the owners of SUVs--but the two cases above serve to illustrate the oddest component of this phenomenon, the one that really brings me up short. No matter how much Americans seem to hate it when good ol' boys make good, they love the idea of good ol' boys making good so much that they try to fit people into that mold who don't fit at all. You can love George W. Bush or hate him, but the simple fact of the matter is that there is no way in hell he's anybody's good ol' boy. He isn't just like you and me. He didn't grow up poor or middle class. He didn't go to public schools. He didn't have to work his way up from the bottom. In fact, George W. Bush is as little like an "ordinary American" as it's possible to get and still carry a U.S. passport.
Let me make something clear, right here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being what George W. Bush actually is. Andover is the best secondary education on the planet. Yale is among the best universities on the planet. Anybody who could afford to send his son to places like those would do it, and anybody who could afford a couple of fully staffed forty-room houses for the kids to live in while they were home would probably afford that, too. There's nothing wrong with coming from a family with money, or visiting Paris for the first time at the age of seven, or being taken to the opera over Christmas vacation from elementary school.
What gives me pause is the relentless public relations machine that attempts to portray George W. Bush as "just like us" while portraying his opponents as "rich elitists." In early March, 2004, a conservative group called Citizens United launched a 30 second television ad loosely based on Mastercard's "Priceless" campaign. Calling John Kerry "another rich, liberal elitist from Massachusetts," it gave a laundry list of his supposed luxuries: $75 haircuts, $250 shirts, a $1 million yacht, $30 million in real estate.
It was an impressive list, all right. The only problem with it was that it could have been matched item for item by George W. Bush. Hell, in any decent who's-got-the-money contest, Bush would win. Andover is a much more prestigious prep school than St. Paul's. Bush's family goes back farther and has more important connections than Kerry's family ever hoped to have. Bush is the son and grandson of rich men. Kerry is the son and grandson of upper middle class men who actually had to work for a living.
The most interesting thing, though, is what David N. Bossie, head of Citizens United, said about all this when it was pointed out to him. Bush may have been born into a privileged family, he said, but voters perceived him as a "likeable, average guy."
Let's skip over the obvious here--do you really want an "average guy" with his finger on the nuclear trigger?--and ask the question somebody at the New York Times should have asked. Since Bush is obviously not an "average guy," why go to so much trouble to pretend he's one? FDR wasn't an average guy. Neither were John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, or William Howard Taft. Neither were George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter. Being born to wealth and privilege has never been an impediment to becoming President of the United States. It's usually been a help.
America often seems to be in the grip of one form of cultural schizophrenia or another, but this is our deepest and most puzzling one: we hate and fear our good ol' boys when they work hard and make good, but we are determined to pretend our aristocrats are good ol' boys. It's as if we've developed a taste for the ersatz because it's ersatz, as if we only want the American Dream if it's a fake.
A friend of mine says that the reason for what we do to those good ol' boys who make good is simple. By being who and what they are--by being no more like the "average guy" than the aristocrats are--they make the rest of us look bad. They achieved what we did not. Their achievement convicts us of our own laziness, and disorganization, and lack of ambition. They make it impossible for us to tell ourselves that it doesn't matter if we didn't get too far, we never had a chance anyway.
The same friend says that the reason we do what we do to our aristocrats is simple, too. Demanding that they pretend to be what they're not, that they pretend to love pork rinds and country music instead of Beef Wellington and La Nozze di Figaro, is a way of exacting tribute. They get a free pass to popularity as long as they flatter us. They present us with no uncomfortable examples of extraordinary effort or commitment. Being born on third base means never having to "strive." They exhibit no odd tastes for complex works of literature or difficult works of art. There's no need to agonize over whether they secretly despise us for watching Celebrity Boxing or going to bed with a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Most of all, we never, ever have to worry, even for a moment, if we could have ended up where they did if we'd done what they'd done. Of course we couldn't have. It was all a matter of luck, like winning the lottery.
I have no idea if my friend is right and America is full of resentful, sulking losers, eternally paranoid about being looked down on by educated snobs, demanding to be pacified by fake humility and little white cultural lies. I do know that Wesley Clark and Bill Clinton deserved better than they got. Real achievement in the real world deserves to be acknowledged, not fended off with crosses and holy water. If you're ashamed of yourself for not having done more with your life than you have, you need to take that up with your mirror. Projecting your bad opinion of yourself onto people who have accomplished more than you have is destructive both to you as a human being and to the culture at large.
In the meantime, George W. Bush needs to be cut a little slack, too. He's not a "likeable, average guy," and there's something deeply degrading about the pretense that he is. For better or worse, President Bush was born rich and well connected to a family that has been rich and well connected for generations. That's legal in the United States of America. It's even admired. There's no point in our pretending that he's not much different than our friend Earl down at the gas station.
Copyright © 2004 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.