An Era That Didn’t Happen

According to Fareed Zakaria, “at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite.”I had the same thought while watching the George H. W. Bush funeral on television.

It is difficult to imagine more anger anywhere than in this picture. Does anyone look like they want to be there or with any of the others? For those who miss the grace and dignity of the past, Schadenfreude is tempting.

The other day, I wrote a story about Bush 41 and it attracted my biggest audience ever. The line that drew the most attention related to my 1960s St. Paul’s and Harvard education preparing me for an era that didn’t happen. Not only did readers comment, some of them called; people I didn’t know. Blogger heaven.

Clearly, “an” era did happen; it just wasn’t the one my father’s tuition dollars had paid to train me for. In fact, more American Presidents were born in my year – 1946 – than in any other. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump would all be in the picture of living ex Presidents if Bush had not been sitting across the aisle with his family. For historians, the runner-up presidential birth years were 1767 (John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson) and 1913 (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford).

Steve Brill, the guy who created The American Lawyer and got fancy buttoned-down lawyers to tell him how much money they made (thus arguably ruining the legal profession), has just written a book called “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It.”

He has a whole 30-page chapter called “Meritocracy Becomes the New Aristocracy.” It begins with Yale President, Kingman Brewster, and his admissions guy, Inky Clark, and their decision to quit taking preppies (a.k.a. WASPs) in favor of greater diversity.

Brill, who concedes that he was one of Inky’s early picks, believes that the reason the meritocrats are contributing to America’s 50-year fall is that they are too good at being selfish, too arrogant about their own earned merit and too certain they deserve the status they began attaining with high SAT scores.

It was one thing for the blue blood softies to exclude others from the top spots because the blue blood softies weren’t very good at it. When the hard-charging, self-promoting meritocrats started to exclude others (as elites invariably do), they were too clever to be dislodged.

Let’s have a think about that. Intuitively, Brill’s argument makes sense. If today’s elites get there on merit, surely they are more skilled than those who became elites thanks to multiple middle initials and roman numerals after their names.

But what if Brill leaves something out, perhaps even something important?

Few will worry about dumpsters filled with WASPs and a fewer still will seek to dust them off and bring them back, but it might be useful to look in those dumpsters and see what else was discarded.

Of course, we’ll find the blue blazers, polo shirts and khaki pants, but there will also be crumpled slips of paper reading: choose the hard right over easy wrong; tell the truth; do your best; don’t blame people; be strong; try hard; stay the course; forgive; don’t get down when your life takes a bad turn; don’t blame others for your setbacks;always give credit to otherswhen things go well; don’t talk all the time; don’t brag about yourself; let others point out your virtues and strong points; give someone else a hand; when a friend is hurting show that friend you care; nobody likes an overbearing big shot; as you succeed, be kind to people; don’t be afraid to shed a tear when your heart is broken because a friend is hurting; and, finally, say your prayers.

Prayers, perhaps like these?“Make us ever mindful of the needs of others” or “Grant, O Lord, that in all the joys of life we may never forget to be kind. Help us to be unselfish in friendship, thoughtful of those less happy than ourselves, and eager to bear the burdens of others.”

Whether or not lessons like these were being taught to the correct people — at least judged by today’s standards — they were being taught to some people and, when we discarded the multiple middle initials and the Roman numerals, we inadvertently discarded those who had been taught those lessons. I see no evidence to think they had been taught to those sitting in the front row at the funeral.

It turns out Jon Meacham, the late President’s biographer and eulogist, read his speech to Bush 41 before he died. After hearing it, Bush said, “that’s a lot about me, Jon.”

This week has highlighted the demise of the simple concept of knowing how to behave.

Whatever method we use to anoint our “noblesse” and, of course that is what our elites wish to be, it is well to remember that noblesse oblige is two words, both of which have meaning.



11 Responses to “An Era That Didn’t Happen”

Ron Bogdasarian, December 08, 2018 at 8:53 pm said:

Excellent again. I loved the medical profession. Most docs I knew lived by the values you so well described


Haven Pell, December 09, 2018 at 2:33 am said:

Thank you Ron, much appreciated.


James Wermuth, December 08, 2018 at 9:39 pm said:

Haven, As a critical writer, I could not have such eloquence. While parts resonate with your ancestry, this set of marked, disciplined observations should be integrated with freshman sociology. Thank you –


Haven Pell, December 09, 2018 at 2:32 am said:

Thank you James, much appreciated


Barrett Seaman, December 08, 2018 at 10:55 pm said:

Solid, fresh thinking, Haven. Lord knows the brash young meritocrats could use a little of the old-fashioned WASP ethos Bush41 embodied.


Haven Pell, December 09, 2018 at 2:30 am said:

Thank you Barry. The smarm (can that be a noun?) has increased since you left.


Jim Chubb, December 09, 2018 at 2:53 am said:

The deep truths of your writing bring a sense of sadness. Civilizations and sovereign states have always come and gone, from golden age to degradation. Usually on a one way trip down.


Haven Pell, December 09, 2018 at 4:04 am said:

Oh no, I did not mean to be Debby Downer. I’d like to encourage them to do a little better.


H Sellers McKee (roman numeral excluded), December 09, 2018 at 5:10 pm said:

Excellent article (as usual), Haven.
The anger you observe unfortunately goes even deeper and reflects more than just a rejection of “traditional values,” in my opinion. It used to be that the elite agreed on the “ends” of what our country was all about (some form of gentle Capitslism, perhaps), but disagreed, often passionately, about the “means” to get there. In today’s world half the country openly embraces Socialism while a significant minority is actually Communist! There can be no discussion of “means” when the “ends” are diametrically opposed. What do the two sides actually have to talk about? You might even argue that the Left wing elite don’t actually believe in Socialism but just pretend to for political and financial gain. If so, isn’t that even worse? And meanwhile, who’s going to inform the indoctrinated masses that their Party leaders don’t actually intend to tear down the establishment but rather just bend it to their will? Debbie Downer revisited?


Haven Pell, December 09, 2018 at 11:10 pm said:

I love the roman numeral excluded. Surprised I have not been chided for multiple middle initials.


Haven Pell, December 11, 2018 at 9:02 pm said:

There is one other pair of Presidents born in the same year: George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter 1924. My bad.


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