HILL OF BEANS: Class Clowns

Both parties raise gobs of money by shaking down the rich. But there can't have been a bigger public celebration of extortion in modern times than the Democrats' record-breaking, $26.5-million "Tribute to President Clinton," held in Washington's MCI Center last week. What was galling about the event was its pretensions to being anti-plutocratic. It was a "blue-jean fundraiser" -- juss a regla hoedown barby-cue! Everyone present, starting with the President and Mrs. Clinton, was dressed in the jeans-and-boots style that Dave Barry refers to as "pretend cowboy." And anyone who wanted to could get in, for just 50 dollars.

Well, yeah. But the seats around the President were reserved for donors who had raised half a million dollars apiece. That's what you had to pay to play, to actually have a voice in the Democratic Party's priorities -- and it's a barrier to democratic participation of unprecedented height. Real access -- the President's ear -- costs a half mil. What you got for 50 bucks, by contrast, was the chance to come and wallah to your social superiors. There were two separate events here: one for the ruling class, and one for the proles.

There's nothing wrong with segregating by class in certain venues -- but a public meeting of the party that claims to speak for the "little guy" is not one of those venues. It was the fraudulence with which the Democrats tried to camouflage their two-track idea of citizenship that really got one's goat. The event's organizer, Terry McAuliffe, one of the most ruthless fundraisers of our time, got a rise out of the crowd by showing on a video screen the menu at a Republican fundraiser held a month ago. It had a goat cheese appetizer on it, along with an orange meringue cake for dessert. What's more, McAuliffe said, the Republicans were actually wearing ties. "How many people came to this [Democratic] event in a long black stretch limousine?" McAuliffe said. "Who here tonight is wearing a tuxedo?"

Yuh? So what?

To say McAuliffe is engaging in class mystification here would be too gentle; it's more like class fraud. He's hoping no one notices that pretty much all the class markers and status symbols that prevailed for half a century after World War II have lost their meaning. Haute cuisine no longer marks you as a nob: you can get goat cheese at Taco Bell and orange meringue cake in the Cheesecake Factory. Black stretch limousines are far less in demand among international bankers than they are among drunk 24-year-olds on their way to Hooters for a bachelor party. If there's one thing a tie says about someone for certain, it's that he's not a member of the information-age upper class. You'll see more ties worn behind the Midas Muffler counter than you will in Microsoft's boardroom.

Rich and complacent lefties seem to have an interest in the preposterous idea that tie-wearing signifies callous wealth and tielessness middle-class sincerity. That godawful song by Bruce Hornsby -- than whom no leftist is more complacent -- in which "a man in a silk suit" tells a homeless person to "get a job" is priceless in this regard. A silk suit? Who does he think the typical member of the American upper class is? Lord Alfred Douglas?

And before we start urging that everyone dress alike, we should ask whether we really want to have an upper class that's invisible. As Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers point out in their new book, America's Forgotten Majority, there still is a working class in America. Its members just do different things. They fold sweaters at the Gap rather than pour steel, and it can't be long before it dawns on them that the Democratic Party may have been a wonderful instrument of upward mobility for those who were in the same boat 65 years ago but has never done jack for them.

There is a new upper class, too. These are the "bourgeois bohemians" my friend David Brooks describes in his new book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. This is a masterpiece of taxonomy, sociology and reportage. But it never faces squarely the most important political question: that an upper class is of necessity a ruling class. (Otherwise, it would be a mere income bracket, not a class.)

They, too, do different things. They make movies rather than sell stocks and bonds. Look at Robert Johnson, CEO of Black Entertainment Television. BET has about two hours a week of original programming. Johnson has become a billionaire (yes-with a "b") largely thanks to government must-carry directives that get BET included in cable packages that even Fox doesn't get into. And now, in the wake of the United buyout of US Airways, Johnson, who sits on the board, is being offered ... his own airline! Yes, DCAir, which will get most of USAir's domestic non-shuttle routes. United seems to expect that the Clinton administration's oft-voiced desire to secure more minority involvement in the transportation industry will encourage its Justice Dept. to look the other way once the antitrust implications of the merger come up.

Now, you may be an affirmative-action supporter who thinks, on balance, that the pluses of having a black airline boss outweigh the minuses that come from the blatant cronyism of the arrangement. But you cannot ignore that it is cronyism-of the most old-style, plutocratic, interlocking-directorates kind. Johnson's commitment to "progressivism" seems to stop at de facto set-asides like this one. It certainly doesn't extend to union organizing, which Johnson has blocked at BET. In the way he earned billions through government-aided "free enterprise," Johnson resembles no billionaire so much as Ross Perot, who made his own stash reselling computer expertise that his company (EDS) had been paid to develop by the state of Texas. Would you give an airline to Ross Perot? Is Ross Perot any more a pillar of the "upper class"?

This is an unusually "sweet" and "concerned" upper class, but it's an unusually sneaky one. It is desperate to avoid opening the question of whether the advantages it enjoys are fair ones, so it has an interest in class camouflage. It's hard to say whether the Clintons and their kind really enjoy dressing up like cowboys and Australian shepherds and Amazon River tour guides, or whether they recognize they're engaged in a con job that requires bamboozling the poor as to who their real allies are. At some point, both sides are going to wake up and Democrats are going to have to choose between their two constituencies. They've probably already chosen. The real-world consequences for the Gore campaign of this lag in class-consciousness were nicely laid out in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the attempts of California's Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union to organize the Loews Santa Monica Hotel. Loews CEO Jonathan Tisch is among Al Gore's most open-pocketed contributors, but HERE has already endorsed Gore, too. Now, someone is wasting money with his political contributions here, and I suspect it's not Jonathan Tisch.

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