Sore Winners

Following is an excerpt from chapter four of John Power's "Sore Winners," published by Doubleday.

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 advisor in a nearby box seat. The next day, the sports media were shrieking about hotdogging, bad sportsmanship, today's spoiled athletes – and what kind of example is this for our kids? Me, I just laughed out loud. Owens's 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 hotdogging, bad sportsmanship, today's spoiled athletes – and what kind of example is this for our kids?

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 has 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 handbasket. 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 Bad Winners aren't simply found in the media. We encounter them every day, from the workplace where higher-ups treat employees like "the help" to the service industries where "the help" is treated as something even lower: I recently watched an Armani-besuited woman park her Mercedes SUV in the middle of a busy street near a restaurant, dodge through traffic, and toss the keys to the busy valet parker, snapping, "I don't have time to wait for you." Granted, this was in Beverly Hills, but once such behavior was for spoiled teens. 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.

By the time Olson showed the reporter his stuffed lion – "I can't help it, I always gravitate toward the predators" – he wasn't merely being a Bad Winner, he was making a production of it, like one who'd studied old tapes of Goldfinger to see how a crowd-pleasing supervillain behaved.

When Tyco chairman and CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski 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 out 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, antitax 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 has 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 bad 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 norteno version of the PRI, the kleptocracy that ran Mexico for seventy-one 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.

The rich and powerful aren't the only ones who have grown flush with pleasure at their privilege. Marx famously declared that the ruling ideas of any age are those of its ruling class, and conservative intellectuals have been busily crafting the Winners' postmillennial ideology, from elaborate arguments for American militarism to defenses of high-end consumerism. Over the last few years, we've been inundated with tomes such as Kagan's "Of Paradise and Power," which insists that the United States has the duty to run the world; Joseph Epstein's smug "Snobbery: The American Version," in which the Northwestern prof riffs on status-mania (from the seat of his $45,000 Jaguar); and James B. Twitchell's sharp "Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury," a volume urging us, not quite ironically enough, to think of luxury as "the necessary consumption of the unnecessary." Now, that's a phrase I bet L. Paul Bremer didn't try out on the Iraqis.

The most amiable of these works is David Brooks's “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” a self-described piece of "comic sociology," which argues that our new upper class represents sort of a Hegelian synthesis of bourgeois aspiration and bohemian lifestyle. As you'd expect of the New York Times's house neocon, Brooks is a master at giving us right-wing politics with a human face. I recognized many of my own foibles in his descriptions. Free of the reflexive contempt for middle-class life that weakens so much cultural analysis, he fills his book with astute social observations, good-humored swipes at the Bobo taste for pricy water and Tshirts – " We spend our money on peasant goods that are created in upscale versions of themselves" – and self-deprecating asides: "I sometimes think I've made a whole career out of self-loathing." It's an amusing line, although Brooks doesn't strike one as being another Roy Cohn. The Pangloss of patio culture, he seems eminently satisfied with the world and his place in it – he hadn't been an editor at The Weekly Standard for nothing. Bobos in Paradise is finally far less eager to question the values of today's Winners than to endorse them. "Bobos have reasons to feel proud of the contributions they have made to their country," Brooks tells us. "Wherever they have settled, they have made life more enjoyable (for those who can afford it)." An entire vision of the world reveals itself in those parentheses.

Early on, Brooks argues that our new ruling class, which replaced the old WASP version, is a creation of America's modern meritocracy. Individuals rise through their accomplishments, not inherited status. And this, conservatives insist, is as it should be. That's why they oppose preferential systems such as affirmative action – except, of course, for members of the elite. One of the most preposterous examples of such thinking came in “In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History,” by Saul Bellow's son, Adam, an extremely thick book of thin propaganda. Vaclav Havel once remarked that there's always something fishy about an intellectual on the winning side, and the younger Bellow does nothing to prove him wrong. The book's basic idea is pretty much what we've come to expect from conservative writers – a defense of the ruling order and its perks. Bellow argues that our so called New Nepotism is a good thing because the privileges of birth have become bound to "the iron rule of merit." 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 still 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. This is certainly true of the NBA, where Bill Walton can't just call up David Stern and get his son Luke a good contract with the Lakers. But what of Colin Powell's son, Michael, whom Bush appointed chairman of the FCC? What of Dick Cheney's daughter Elizabeth, 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 – oh, no one in particular.

And then, of course, there's the Nepotist-in-Chief, with whom Bellow wisely dispenses very quickly. Dubya's cushy rise from hot tempered party boy to underqualified president is not exactly a career that leaves one wanting to praise nepotism. Nor did a lacerating Los Angeles Times expose that chronicled corporate America's latest trick for buying up votes in Congress: Companies simply hire as their lobbyists the children of U.S. senators whose votes affect their industry. For instance, John Breaux Jr. and the distinguished Chet Lott (a pizza-parlor manager in Kentucky) suddenly landed high-paying jobs as lobbyists for BellSouth. What stellar achievements landed them these gigs? 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 the many others in Congress with lobbyist relatives swear that they would never give a 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 from Bellow, who, with the suaveness of one who can declare the Borgias "a remarkable family," seems blind to the elitist corruption at the heart of his argument. On the side of the Winners, he's too busy declaring nepotism an "art" that can be practiced well or badly. Then, too, so is winning. Part of doing it gracefully is knowing how to have your own way without making everyone else feel small.

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