By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Except, of course, for members of the elite. For the latest example of such thinking one need merely look at Adam Bellow’s In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, a long (indeed overlong) new book that has prompted a media frisson. You see, its author is the son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Saul Bellow, and though his parents split when he was 3, Bellow has doubtless spent most of his 40-odd years dealing with the fact of his paternity — living up to Dad, trading on his name, dealing with charges of nepotism.
Frankly, most readers will skim the fine points of Bellow’s sweeping argument — which discusses the nepotistic behavior of everything from the Kennedy clan to slime mold (seriously) — in order to reach what he has to say about present-day America. And here, the basic idea is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from our conservative writers — a defense of the ruling order. Bellow argues that the so-called New Nepotism, which we Americans now enjoy, is a good thing because the privileges of birth have become bound to “the iron rule of merit.” That is, although the children of the rich and powerful clearly have more opportunities than the rest of us — posh schools, open doors, powerful allies, a sense of comfort with the elite — this is a far cry from traditional nepotism in which parents hired their kids outright or pulled strings to land them a good position. Whatever your connections today, Bellow insists, you still have to earn your success. Bill Walton can’t just call up David Stern and get his son Luke a good NBA contract.
Now this is quite true (Kate Hudson’s “stardom” notwithstanding), and I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the iron rule of merit would have rewarded Adam Bellow, who is brainy, writes well and has good commercial instincts (he published Dinesh D’Souza’s ghastly right-wing best-seller Illiberal Education). But what of Colin Powell’s son, Michael, who’s head of the FCC? What of Dick Cheney’s daughter Elizabeth, now a deputy assistant secretary of state? What of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who’s married to Senator Mitch McConnell and had as acting solicitor for the Labor Department, Eugene Scalia, the son of — you guessed it.
And then, of course, there’s George W. Bush, who Bellow, perhaps wisely, gives only two brief mentions in a 565-page book. Until his early 40s, Dubya lived like my cousins back in Iowa — he was a lazy student, tireless party animal, lousy businessman and superb mama’s boy. But where my cousins now work at a John Deere plant, Bush is the president — thanks to his dad’s connections and to having his equally connected brother running Florida on an election night when it was extremely handy having kinfolk in charge. Not exactly a career that leaves one wanting to praise nepotism.
Nor does the lacerating June 20 piece in the Los Angeles Times, which chronicled the latest way corporate America now buys votes in Congress. Unable to give our representatives all the money that’s necessary, companies simply hire as lobbyists the children of U.S. senators whose votes affect their industry. For instance, John Breaux Jr. and the distinguished Chet Lott (a failed country musician and pizza-parlor manager in Kentucky) suddenly landed high-paying jobs as lobbyists for BellSouth. Why? Their fathers, Louisiana Senator John Breaux and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, just happened to be on the Senate committees that voted on telecommunications legislation.
Predictably, Breaux and Lott (and all the others in Congress with lobbyist relatives) swear that they’d never, ever give any special break to a corporate cause just because their own flesh and blood happened to be representing it. Just as predictably, cases like this don’t get a whole lot of play by Bellow, who, with the suaveness of one who can declare the Borgias “a remarkable family,” insists that nepotism is actually an “art” that can be practiced well or badly. I don’t know about Bellow, but I’d say that BellSouth and the Lotts practiced it pretty damn well — for themselves anyway. Perhaps they asked, “What would slime mold do?”