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Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America

Illustrations by Miguel Valenzuela

Halfway into the 2002 NFL season, 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens scored a touchdown against the Seahawks in Seattle. Crossing the goal line, he flabbergasted everyone by pulling a Sharpie from his sock, autographing the ball, and handing it to his financial adviser in a nearby box seat. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hot-dogging, bad sportsmanship, today’s spoiled athletes — and what kind of example is this for our kids? Me, I just laughed out loud. Owens’ silly stunt was simply routine braggadocio that was inevitably topped one year later when the Saints’ Joe Horn celebrated a TD by pulling out a cell phone he’d planted in the end zone and making a celebratory call. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hot-dogging, bad sportsmanship, today’s spoiled athletes — and what kind of example is this for our kids? And this was before “Big Brother” Shaq and “Little Brother” Kobe decided to play Cain and Abel.

It’s long been part of our national self-image that Americans are Good Winners. When Yankee soldiers triumphed over Burgoyne’s army at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, British prisoners were impressed by the victors’ polite silence — there was no gloating or jeering. When U.S. troops entered Germany after World War II, they didn’t indulge in an orgy of rape as did the Soviets but helped rebuild the country, winning a caricatured reputation for being beaming men with chocolate bars. And when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won its famous “Do you believe in miracles?” victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, the players exulted in their triumph without getting in the Russians’ faces.

In truth, no country always behaves well in victory. Sometimes our Winners have been gentlemanly; at others, vulgar and ruthless. Just ask the foreign basketball players flattened by Charles Barkley at the Barcelona Olympics. During the heyday of Social Darwinism, capitalists worked people to death without the slightest qualm and made no apology for it — try to form a union and goons would come after you with clubs. Meanwhile, the rich exulted in their wealth. The delightfully named Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish held a 1904 dinner party in honor of her dog, which turned up in a $15,000 diamond collar at a time when the average annual income was $380. Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller explained his fortune to a Sunday school class by declaring, “God gave me the money.”

The Bush years may be the coarsest period in our nation’s history since those days. To my amazement, I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the comparatively modest ill manners of the Reagan years, when the U.S. invaded countries like Grenada and “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken was on the prowl. Today’s Winners don’t simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing. When Hurricane Isabel knocks out the power in much of Washington, D.C., the Redskins’ billionaire owner doesn’t just get a huge generator to restore his own electricity but turns on all his lights, so that his house glows like the Vegas strip while his annoyed neighbors sit in the dark. Practicing the “look out for yourself” philosophy preached in his books, Bill O’Reilly gloats about how many copies he’s sold, accuses critics of “envy,” and uses his media platforms to pitch his books and “The Spin Stops Here” tchotchkes. Seventeen-year-old hoops phenom LeBron James drives to high school in his $50,000 Hummer, not even bothering to pretend that he’s a regular student. And careerist wiseass Dennis Miller, who now embraces George W. Bush on CNBC, the better to kick the underdog, justifies a bellicose U.S. foreign policy by saying, “We are real good at what we do, and the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket. As that gap gets wider, they’ll hate us more and more and more. We are simultaneously the most hated, feared, loved and admired nation on this planet. In short, we are Frank Sinatra, and you know something, the Chairman didn’t get to be the Chairman lying down for punks outside the Fontainbleu.”

On the worst day of his life, Ol’ Blue Eyes, who grew up poor in Hoboken, was more idealistic about America than that.

Such Sore Winners aren’t simply found in the media. Now you find such thuggishness everywhere. It’s certainly out front in business, whose leaders pride themselves on their brutality, as Donald (“You’re fired”) Trump made clear while pitching the stretch-limo fantasy The Apprentice: “I think there’s a whole beautiful picture to be painted about business, American business, how beautiful it is but also how vicious and tough it is. The beauty is the success, the end result. You meet some wonderful people, but you also meet some treacherous, disgusting people that are worse than any snake in the jungle.”

 

For decades, we were told that company owners and CEOs made a lot more than their employees because they were taking enormous risks. If they made bad decisions, they’d lose their jobs, while workers could just punch the clock and collect their paycheck. That fantasy has been turned upside down in a world in which CEOs of failing companies get extra stock options even as they lay off workers and bankrupt their pension plans. In October 2003, The Economist ran a cover story about executives that pictured a gargantuan carrot and asked, “Where’s the Stick?” Yet what makes today’s business leaders galling isn’t simply their greed — that’s always been part of the picture — but their shamelessness.

Consider the much-bruited case of Peter Olson, chairman and CEO of Random House, who goes through the publishing world brandishing his big balls as proudly as a gaucho his boleadora. So pleased is he with his bullying that he allowed The New York Times Magazine to record his regal behavior at the 2003 Book Expo America in Los Angeles:

On his way back to the Random House booth, Olson stopped to chat with a man who now runs the Frankfurt Book Fair. “I fired him,’’ he said a moment later. “I recognize hundreds of people here. Many of them worked for me. Many of them I fired personally.’’ He did not seem upset by this. In fact, he seemed amused. He walked a few steps farther. “I fired him,’’ he said as two men passed by. “There are so many people here that I’ve fired that we could have a reunion.’’ Olson’s smile broadened.

Proud of being a Sore Winner, he seems to have studied old tapes of Goldfinger to learn how a crowd-pleasing supervillain behaved.

Meanwhile, Tyco chairman and CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski learned how lucrative bullying could be. When he was indicted for fraud and conspiracy, it emerged that he not only defrauded the state of New York of more than $1 million in sales tax on purchases for his art collection but got Tyco to fork over more than $135 million in largely forgiven loans and personal expenses. As James Stewart observed in The New Yorker, “The less he actually needed Tyco’s money, the more he felt entitled to take it.” He’s not the only one. On NPR’s Fresh Air, anti-tax zealot–turned–Beltway powerbroker Grover Norquist stunned the host, Terry Gross, by actually comparing the estate tax to the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Such vaulting brutishness can’t be blamed on George W. Bush, but he’s done nothing to humble the Winners. He couldn’t be less like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, no small egomaniac himself, who helped knock apart the Gilded Age because its ignobility gnawed at him: “Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth.” The Bush administration is a veritable hive of Sore Winners, whether it’s the president scowling peevishly at questions that Reagan would have dispatched with a joke, the vice president sneering that energy conservation is no more than “personal virtue,” or Rummy treating everyone from reporters to generals as if they were no brighter than whelks. Nothing betrays such arrogance more than Republican big shots’ public boasts that the GOP is becoming the “natural” party of power — a norteño version of the PRI, the kleptocracy that ran Mexico for 71 years. They brag about placing Republicans in key lobbying slots of K Street, freezing out PACs that don’t ante up, and using congressional redistricting to ensure that the GOP keeps winning more seats. Such political hardball is hardly unprecedented. Although less ruthlessly, the Democrats played many of the same tricks for years. What’s new is how flagrantly Bush and his party flaunt tactics it was once thought politic to keep hidden. It’s no longer enough just to do these things, one must make a public meal of it.

 

One of the defining landmarks in the evolution of the Sore Winner culture was the 1972 Republican Convention that re-nominated Richard Nixon. Kurt Vonnegut, covering the convention for Harper’s, came back with his mustache at half-mast. “The two real political parties in America,” he mourned, “are the Winners and Losers. The single religion of the Winners is a harsh interpretation of Darwinism, which argues that it is the will of the universe that only the fittest should survive.”

Things have changed a bit over the last three decades. Thanks to the Christian right, none of our politicians dares mention Darwin, except to say he shouldn’t be taught in schools. (“Religion has been around a lot longer than Darwin,” our president has noted helpfully.) Beyond that, the Winners’ agenda is now far harsher than it ever was under Nixon, whose social policies would strike today’s Republicans as downright socialist. The Bush administration has given the rich hundreds of billions in tax “relief,” while excluding millions of less favored Americans (including U.S. troops) from other forms of tax relief. Even as it gave $80,000 write-offs to businessmen who buy Humvees, it sought to change the Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that would cost countless hourly workers their overtime. Just redefine their work as administrative and the extra hours are free. Underlying such behavior is the president’s embrace of a philosophy (or, more accurately, an outlook) I call Populist Social Darwinism. Bush boasts about returning power to ordinary people — “We want to give you back your money” — then pursues policies that produce a class of highly visible Winners while unraveling the social safety net. Anytime you so much as mention this, you’re accused of waging class warfare.

 

Originally conceived in the mid-19th century, Social Darwinism was fathered by the English positivist Herbert Spencer. He, not Darwin, actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” But he did find confirmation of his ideas in Origin of Species, using the Theory of Natural Selection to provide both a biological justification for the savage inequalities of laissez-faire economics and a reason to hope for the future — the truths of evolution would lead, in distant generations, to a superior form of man. Spencer’s ideas proved especially popular in the United States after the Civil War, partly because they tapped into America’s fascination with Darwin (there was a time when we took pride in scientific know-how) but mainly because they dovetailed with the arriviste ethos of the Gilded Age. At the very moment the rich were growing richer and the poor more exploited, along came a theory that served as the perfect ideological fig leaf.

Although Spencer emerged from a modest background (his father was an antiestablishment Methodist schoolteacher), he and his acolytes held that vast discrepancies in wealth and power were part of a “natural” process unfolding so slowly that conscious attempts to change it were foolish and possibly counterproductive. Just as Marxism replaced old-fashioned morality with a “scientific” theory of dialectical change, so Social Darwinism offered a “scientific” picture of evolution that explained away the immorality of sweatshops, child labor, working Chinese immigrants to death on the railroads and conquering supposedly inferior races. The mere idea of the state helping the poor was anathema.

Like one of our Republican congressmen who still thinks that Medicare is Bolshevism, Yale’s homegrown Social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, dourly insisted in 1885 that socialism extended to “any device whose aim is to save individuals from any of the difficulties or hardships of the struggle for existence and the competition of life by the intervention of the state.” Needless to say, the rich lapped this up, especially when it came accompanied by high-minded religious nostrums. As historian Richard Hofstadter argued, “Darwinism was seized upon as a welcome addition, perhaps the most powerful of all, to the store of ideas to which solid and conservative men appealed when they wished to reconcile their fellows to some of the hardships of life and to prevail upon them not to support hasty and ill-considered reforms.”

Naturally, such a doctrine was vehemently rejected by reformers, including the followers of William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the misery caused by untrammeled laissez-faire attitudes. In an irony Spencer might have appreciated, though Sumner certainly would not have, the ruthless capitalism of the 19th century created a labor movement that rebelled against it, even threatening socialism, gradually pushing America toward the gentler welfare capitalism of the 20th century. As Franklin Roosevelt set up programs to help protect citizens against the harshness of unemployment, old age and economic change, it became clear that the fittest capitalism was the modern welfare state. By the time Aaron Copland wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man” in the early 1940s, Social Darwinism had been thoroughly discredited.

Or so one thought. But ever since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, Spencer’s vision of Winners and Losers has been sneaking back. Shorn of its previous Darwinian claims to science but still robed in a Victorian-style moralism, it has found justification in the writings of neocon historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who views the 19th-century attitudes as being in many ways superior to modern liberal social engineering. Decades of prosperity had let everyone forget what the New Deal had done for America. Suddenly, government welfare was treated as the cause of social ills, not the solution, and the state had become the enemy of the people. Onetime FDR-worshiper Reagan slashed the top income tax rate by 60 percent, to its lowest level since the beginning of the Great Depression. (It had been as high as 90 percent during the Eisenhower boom years.)

 

The process of distributing the wealth upward continued under Bill Clinton, who affected to regret it, and carried over to the presidency of George W. Bush, who does not. His compassionate conservatism is content with a two-tier society whose levels drift farther apart all the time. One shouldn’t be fooled by the right’s loud populism. Off the air, Rush Limbaugh brags of his fondness for $2,000 bottles of wine and illegal Cuban cigars. One prefers the honesty of the magazine Robb Report Worth, which boasts about being “strictly for the super-affluent,” meaning people who make over half a million a year.

America is increasingly a country where Winners’ kids attend private schools and the Losers’ go to fading public ones, where Winners shop at specialty grocers and Losers buy their food at Wal-Mart, where Winners fly business or first class while Losers are stuck in economy sections and treated with flagrant, lunch-in-a-doggie-bag contempt, where Winners choose from a smorgasbord of jobs and Losers like Jessica Lynch enlist in the military because they couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart. The chances of upward mobility have shrunk vastly in the last 30 years; BusinessWeek says the odds have dropped by 60 percent. In that same period, the richest 1 percent of the population has doubled its holdings. It now possesses as much as the bottom 40 percent, and the richest 13,000 families own as much as the poorest 20 million households. As Al Franken vividly put it, this is like Bemidji, Minnesota, having more income than all the residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix combined. While Bush didn’t create this situation, his policies are making the divisions far more extreme. He’s institutionalizing a New Gilded Age in which the state gives financial assistance to the very wealthy — Bill Gates personally saved $82 million in the first year of the dividend tax cut — while showing little concern for those who are not. What compassionate leader could preside over the loss of more than 2 million jobs — many among the middle class, whose positions have permanently moved abroad — and still be obsessed with cuts to the estate tax? In 2003, Bush racked up a $480 billion budget deficit while cutting programs like Head Start and AmeriCorps, the entire budget of which was only three times Gates’ dividend tax cut. Convinced of the inherent goodness of the free market — a religion he embraces more deeply than Christianity — he evidently thinks it normal for Winners to take what they want. The Losers be damned.

In this, he merely reflects the prevailing values of what Robert Frank has dubbed the “Winner-Take-All Society,” in which a small number of star performers reap ever greater rewards while the majority receives less and less. You can see it in the retail world, where the Wal-Mart store on the outskirts of a small city devours the business of its entire downtown. You see it in pop culture, where the sales of one Harry Potter novel dominate bookstore revenues for an entire summer, and a single hit franchise like Law and Order can keep an entire network in the black. (“There are only two kinds of TV shows,” an industry honcho once told me. “Hits — and the ones that don’t matter.”) You see it in the media, which keeps churning out Power Lists, Hot Lists, Cool Lists, and It Lists, makes sure every kid knows which movie is No. 1, and even bombards us with stories about precocious young Winners like the 18-year-old novelist Nick McDonell, who wrote the 2002 novel Twelve, a Manhattan knockoff of Less Than Zero, and 15-year-old Nikki Reed, screenwriter of the rancid girls-gone-bad teen flick Thirteen. And naturally, you see it in business, where (depending on the source) corporate CEOs make 282 to 400 times more than their hourly workers, seven times higher than when Reagan took office. The Onion captured the spirit of our time in a headline: CONGRESS RAISES EXECUTIVE MINIMUM WAGE TO $565.15/HR.

Nowhere was the Hobbesian war of the few against the many keener than at the president’s favorite crooked company, which will be studied for years as a prime example of run-amok crony capitalism. Enron’s ethos was superbly portrayed by the Houston Chronicle’s Greg Hassell, whose postmortem on the company painted a memorable portrait of Enron’s glory days, laying bare a corporate culture that almost gleefully tossed its vanities onto the bonfire. Beyond the in-building health club and free Starbucks coffee, silver Porsches became an obligatory status symbol, and traders were known to freak out when their annual bonus was only half a million bucks. This conspicuous consumption was encouraged by an evangelical leadership that one former executive compared to the Taliban — either you were for the company or you were an infidel. To call down an Enron fatwa, you needed merely ask for proof of its extravagant claims of profitability. This same casual amorality turned office politics into one endless struggle for survival in which a policy nicknamed “rank and yank” had employees give one another annual ratings, with the bottom 15 percent being fired. Given such a cutthroat culture, it was hardly surprising when so many of the top Enron execs sold off their own shares for a fortune but prohibited underlings from doing the same, even after it became obvious that the value of Enron stock was dropping faster than an Irish heavyweight. Such is the fine art of Darwinian bankruptcy.

Excerpted from Sore Winners (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America , published this week by Doubleday, www.sorewinners.com


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