An American Aristocracy? – March 2003

In trying to figure out why George W. Bush bothers me so, I may have found the answer in the book, Founding Brothers. Adams and Jefferson had years of correspondence after retirement and in discussing the differences between the U.S. and Europe they got into an argument over aristocracy. Both believed that superior people must provide leadership, but Adams leaned toward the idea that ability was inherited and Jefferson thought the cream would rise to the top in a free society regardless of inheritance. Of course, Jefferson’s view is the heart of democracy and it made this country, but in their day the ability of a common man to rise from nothing had not yet been demonstrated.

The Virginians, especially Washington, Jefferson and Madison, were of the landed aristocracy, if not so much by inheritance as by force of personality and rich wives. Washington appears to have taken on imperial airs as president, but his deeply felt sense of justice and common sense made him a true democrat. Ironic that the Boston (Adams) view is pro-aristocracy, but it makes sense: Adams was the only founding father with a son, who later became president. Both Adams’ were among the least successful presidents (both were one termers).

My discomfort with Bush arises out of experiences in school with those I call “WASP elites”. Some elites were smart and had a lot on the ball, but their attitude of entitlement made them ill-equipped to govern in a democracy. My partiality does not eliminate everyone. Jim Baker, a Princeton classmate, was definitely a WASP elite, Texas version. Baker, though, is different. I don’t know how he got into running campaigns, but as I recall he first emerged running Ford’s reelection, then Bush’s run in 1980. Both were defeats, Bush’s leaving his supporters with an empty feeling. He acquired the designation “wimp” out of that campaign. Despite these failures, Baker so impressed his rivals that he was invited to run Reagan’s campaign. Then as part of a triumvirate in the White House chief of staff position, he rose to the sole post, even though the other two were Reagan cronies. He then maneuvered himself out of the White House into Secretary of the Treasury in the second term, ran Bush’s successful campaign, then got State. Bush’s wife blames the second term loss on him for not taking charge of the campaign from the beginning, indirectly a huge compliment to Baker. Then Baker masterminded the stealing of the 2000 election for his old friend’s son. This is a wildly successful man whose proven ability easily overrides my objection to WASP elites.


So, what is the difference with Dubya? It starts, appropriately, with father. He earned the wimp label, despite flying off aircraft carriers, phi beta kappa, success in business, and an amazingly varied career of important appointments. When he got the leadership of the country he came across as a nice guy, but weak. His great triumph, the Iraq War, turned to nothing by an unwillingness to follow through and throw out the most oppressive dictator in the world outside Africa. I still recall discovering with amazement during my St. Paul’s reunion in 1993 that a majority of my class had voted for Clinton (more class members went to Yale than any other college, as well). They had a kinship with Bush and he didn’t come across as a winner, so they voted against him.

Now we get sonny boy, unlike his father a man of no accomplishment (if you can say that of someone winning the biggest prize in the world) and who indeed appears dumb. Partly it is father. If father didn’t have it, why should son, who seems a man of much less ability and certainly much less experience. Son is a better politician and a forceful schmoozer, but can you make a presidency on those talents?

After reading the book, my feeling developed around the Jefferson/Adams exchange over aristocracy. The trouble with Europe and the rest of the world, the reason we ended up on top, is that we don’t have aristocrats and are led by men who rise on the basis of merit. There is no inherited station in this country. Yes, there is inherited wealth and Rockefellers and Kennedys did become successful political leaders, but they are the exception and the Kennedys would not be considered aristocrats. Money undoubtedly did it for them and money does talk in this country, but these families produced outstanding individuals. Aristocrats in the old world originally earned position through ability, but after generations passed and the successors retained position without ability, aristocrats dragged down those countries.


In Dubya I think we have an aristocrat who didn’t in any way earn his position. He got there purely and simply because of his father. Papa had a senator father, who was apparently a very forceful figure, but Bush Sr. did make it on his own. His route to the presidency was a strange one: almost 20 years of appointed positions of stature (first envoy to China, UN envoy, head of the CIA, vice president), in none of which he made much of an impression. If his resume is strange in the variety of appointed positions, it is still remarkable. Dubya, on the other hand, would probably have been a total loss without father: no Yale, no Harvard Business School, no Texas Rangers, no governorship, no presidency. He is just another good time Charlie, probably a broker in the Houston office of a Wall Street firm. And that, I think, is what bothers me about W. We don’t want sons of aristocrats as our presidents. It is a sign of a weakening nation.

On the subject of aristocracy, Adams names five pillars: beauty, wealth, birth, genius, and virtues. To me W qualifies only on birth. These qualities may provide a clue to the visceral hatred of Clinton. The president by his very position becomes an aristocrat. In Clinton’s case, he wins on beauty and genius, perhaps the two qualities most likely to provoke jealousy. He failed on wealth, birth and virtue, which led to an almost pathological hatred among those who consider themselves aristocrats. They could not accept such a man as one of them. Since he was an impostor, they felt justified in sleezy maneuvers to bring him down.

The sense of entitlement among American aristocrats may actually have won the election for Dubya. The anti-Clinton ardor among the elite got them to thinking that any means were legitimate to win. This sentiment slipped over to Gore, whose great shortcoming as a potential aristocrat is an absence of beauty (even Tipper got fat, taking away some of his cover). I could never have imagined anyone attempting to win an election restricting the vote, as the Republicans did. I also could not have imagined that the Supreme Court would intervene decisively where they did not belong and endorse the act of restricting the vote. Baker, on the other hand, understood that enough justices felt they belonged to the aristocratic elite and shared the anti-Clinton/Goreism. Thus, he had the vision to push on to the Supreme Court despite being summarily rejected in Florida and the regional federal courts.

Visiting this subject raises the question of whether we may be developing a wealthy positional aristocracy. Dubya himself is the best example. One of the foundations of an American aristocracy is elimination of the inheritance tax, something the new president is passionate about (noteworthy for a man who is not passionate about much). Recently, I heard a far-righter say, “I challenge anyone to find a justification for the inheritance tax.” The justification is to reduce the possibility of creating a moneyed aristocracy in this country. The proliferation of $100 million and up individuals may pose a problem in the future, for a 55% tax on a billion still leaves $450 million.

Many of the very rich I have known share my feeling. The foremost example is Warren Buffett, who points out the critical role the estate tax plays in promoting economic growth by helping create a society where success is based on merit rather than inheritance. He is fearful that leaders will be created by money rather than competition. “Without the estate tax you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit”.

One of the most interesting developments of Bush’s stand on eliminating the inheritance tax is the banding together of a group of wealthy people to speak out against the proposal. This is a matter that both expresses Bush’s aristocratic viewpoint and his political incompetence at the policy level. He sees what is beneficial to him as good for everyone, when his interests are far apart from what helps the man on the street. He just does not get it when it comes to his personal prerogatives and in the end that is likely to bring him down.


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