It’s a paradigm shift.
We haven’t ever elected men who’ve made a ton of money – not mega-money, not robber-baron money. Even in a nation where “self-made” is the greatest title, there have always been those few who are so self-made, so singular, that we haven’t considered them to be part of the same striving experience. We haven’t, at least in the past, liked people to be that unique – that independent.
Who would trust such men? That kind of money – unlimited, unimaginable amounts of it – naturally breaks the human connection (and who did not hold the Capra-esque belief that such men are the poorer for it?).
That a great crime lies behind every great fortune was the basic sentiment. Where there’s great profit, somewhere else there would be great loss. (You were a financier who’d stolen money from widows or orphans, an industrialist who’d made it off other men’s labor, or a monopolist who had bought off politicians – or all three.) Such men had made their deal with the devil. The more money they made, the dirtier their business – hence “filthy” rich. They had blood on their hands. They were capable of anything (out of such omnipotence, conspiracy theories were born).
Their all-powerfulness (they would certainly have been as insulated and as pampered and as fawned-over and as flattered as any aristocrat ever was) necessarily made them undemocratic, to say the least. And autocratic and authoritarian. Chosen. God, J. D. Rockefeller said about his money, had given it to him.
On the occasions when we elected their children to high office, it was because they’d made a public break with business, with the act of making money. Public life was an act of contrition. To whom much is given, much is required, the Kennedy and Rockefeller heirs went around saying.
But now the bar against electing outlandish, unimaginable, other-worldly wealth has been lifted. With the election of Michael Bloomberg in New York and, last year, Jon Corzine in New Jersey, staggering sums of money, and the freedom and power (not to mention lifestyle) such sums give you, become a political virtue.
In the past, rich men or the heirs of rich men have run or flirted with running, but, in the manner of rich men, have often turned cheap in the process. Even old Joe Kennedy once said he didn’t want to pay for one more vote than he had to. That is not the spirit now. Not only is the calculation different – the cost of a vote is currently about $100 and climbing – but the act of spending, of being able to outspend what has been spent before and to inflate the underlying cost of the entire process, is a kind of demonstration of your willingness to give it your all. I do not believe we would want to elect a cheap rich man.
Obviously, this new tolerance and admiration for the superrich has to do with the ethos of the time. So many people seemed to be on their way to becoming among the richest people who have ever lived, that the idea that this was a special, or weird, or even monstrous status went away. Getting to be this rich even made you seem like something of a Boy Scout. You worked long hours, had a head for numbers, gave people want they wanted. Warren Buffett is rich, we believe, not least of all because he is a mensch.
Even the recent dramatic reversal – the undoing of many of the theoretically rich – has buttressed the reputations of the genuinely rich. It turns out to be so hard to hold on to money or to turn paper wealth into the cash stuff, that the singular men who are real, no-shitting-anybody gazillionaires deserve special recognition.
Here is something else: The really rich used to run from publicity. They didn’t want to inflame the envy of common people; they didn’t want to expose themselves to muckraking scrutiny; they didn’t want to endanger the security of their families. But then, in the current age, when publicity became a clear and monetizable asset, the really rich went after their due. They sought celebrity status and were eagerly granted it. They demystified themselves, packaged themselves. They became as real to us and as attractive as, well, other celebrities (which has enabled their daughters to pursue modeling careers).
We believe, I don’t doubt, that we are electing not just the man but his money too. That we actually get, along with Michael Bloomberg, his billions (although, it should be noted, Michael Bloomberg has been pretty tight about sharing his dollars with his colleagues – his business has not filled the city with Bloomberg millionaires). The man and the money are as one.
The day after Michael Bloomberg’s election, my oldest daughter had a dream: The mayor-elect was to be out of town, so, using my press credentials, our family spent the weekend at the Bloomberg mansion on East 79th Street. It was better than the best hotel, she said.
We assume, I sense, that everything is somehow going to be of a much higher order, fancier, and classier, when we elect a rich man. It will be not just government but government plus added perks and better connections and more commodious furnishings. Fabulous government. Already, Michael Bloomberg seemed appalled by the transition space the city has provided for him – he’ll continue, he said, to work out of his much-better-appointed offices. And everyone I know who was at the Bloomberg victory party has gone on at some length about the menu.
This is part of the contrast-gainer effect. We compare these sun-god-like rich men to their opponents – mortal, earnest, cheap-suit, government-issue politicians.
On the one hand, we have rich men who have demonstrably accomplished something – i.e., they have gotten amazingly rich. (We no longer think of the very rich as takers, but rather as creators – wealth creators.) On the other hand, we have politicians who, we believe, have clearly accomplished nothing – that they would actually be content not to get rich makes them doubly suspect (they are the takers).
For an enormous number of people who work in corporate America, a smartly dressed, business-jargon-spouting, occasionally charming, often despotic rich man is much more familiar and comprehensible than a civil servant, with his bureaucratic style, policy-laden conversation, and wonk aesthetic. Of course, there are an enormous number of civil servants working in government warrens who must find the corporate-mogul aesthetic unsettling. These two camps may define the opposing sides of the future.
Certainly, the former group seems to believe that the skills for building immensely valuable, cutting-edge businesses can be applied much more successfully to the running of government than the skills acquired in a career of working for government. “Mr. Bloomberg is an entrepreneur, a genuine American success story, unlike Mr. Green,” reads one of the many e-mails I’ve gotten.
He’s a “good manager” – the more money you’ve made, the better manager you are. Notably, people speak of “management” now the way we used to speak of politics. Management is about understanding human nature, having keen people skills, being able to inspire, motivate, manipulate. Management, rather than politics, is the art of the possible.
Playing a fruitless game of catch-up, even Al Gore seems to think that joining a financial-services company will enhance his résumé. “I am eager,” he said, unconvincingly, when he announced last week that he would become vice-chairman of Metropolitan West Financial, Inc., an L.A.-based firm, “to learn more about business.”
It’s reasonable, surely, to ask what’s in it for the rich man. Oddly, we seem to believe the rich want less than the non-rich. That the man who needs the job is less trustworthy and necessarily more of a self-promoting phony (he needs the job, so he’ll say anything) than the man whose whole career has been about selling and amassing and self-benefit.
It could just be a matter of scale. Little deals are less classy than big ones. (It’s a business principle: Small transactions cost the same as big transactions and distract you from a major score. Put another way, if you borrow a little, the bank owns you; if you borrow a lot, you own the bank.)
Indeed, while the financial-information business is in generally bad shape, there is said to be a $10 billion post-election offer for Bloomberg L.P. from Thomson, a Canadian financial-information concern; the Bloomberg people, however, have reportedly let it be known that they think $20 billion is more in order. Bloomberg, after all, is a pretty fabulous brand name now.
Everybody’s thinking is going to change about the rich and politics. Most of all, I’ll bet, the rich are going to start rethinking the political process.
For one thing, they are very competitive. (Murdoch’s people were confiding that the New York Post wasn’t going to endorse Bloomberg because Rupert didn’t want another media guy to compete with him for mogulissimo status.) If he can buy that, I can buy that, the rich reflexively conclude. There is a whole class of billionaires who have made their money in the last twenty years and who are now at the age when people run for high office. Mort Zuckerman, Donald Trump, and David Geffen obviously come to mind (does Trump feel like a chump for not being more serious about his own political plans?). I know a bunch of young technology guys who made out like bandits who could easily drop $100 million on a race – and who have nothing much else going on in their lives. I think we can expect to see them on the hustings soon.
Then, too, the people who actually get you elected, who try to convince you that running is what you should be doing, and who then manage the operation and make it happen – the campaign consultants – are naturally going to have a greater interest in the rich than in the non-rich. First of all, the profit margins are greater when you work for the rich (someone, for instance, got a commission on the media buying for Michael Bloomberg). Second of all, running a campaign where you don’t have to raise money is a lot more fun than spending all your time raising money. Plus, with a rich man, you have a lot more creature comforts. And you’re not necessarily selling out – there are rich men to match any political view.
The other thing the Bloomberg and Corzine approach to politics clarifies is that, in the past, many of the rich, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes for instance, played it wrong by running first for the highest office. Not only did they not spend nearly enough money doing it – at $100 a vote, the cost for the ultimate office is $5 billion – but, even for the mighty rich, the process may involve a couple of steps. You can’t start just at the top.
Earlier in the year, when Michael Bloomberg was making his decision to run, he went around town talking to the various influencers and pooh-bahs. Over lunch one day, a prominent member of the Clinton administration tried to dissuade Bloomberg from running. First of all, he couldn’t win, the former Clinton official argued, and then if by some fluke he did, he’d be the mayor of New York, a hard and thankless job.
“But,” Michael Bloomberg asked with some new level of modesty and respect for the process, “from there, couldn’t I get to be president?”