America has chosen self over service

6 mins read


It is Saturday and I’m sitting in our dining room looking into the backyard. Early morning, low-angled sun cuts across the wet grass illuminating a carpet of yellow magnolia leaves. These newly arrived leaves represent several hours of work that will commence in a few hours.

I met my wife, Susan, in Washington D.C. in the winter of 1967. We were both at George Washington University, and our first dates were late night walks to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.

Eventually Susan thought I should meet her mother and father who lived in Darien, Conn. — a small, commuter town about 50 miles northeast of New York City. Believing I could charm almost anyone I quickly agreed.

Darien, Noroton, Greenwich and New Canaan are a few of the towns situated in what is called Connecticut’s Gold Coast. This is where hundreds of thousands of people then lived in rolling, verdant, understated wealth. The men (in those days) dutifully took the New Haven Railroad into Grand Central Station every weekday of their lives.

Susan’s father, Reid Roller, was in advertising. His older daughter was also in advertising and she had married an Art Director who worked at a large agency. Their home was smallish, tasteful, and occupied two wooded acres just off Hollow Tree Ridge Road. The houses on Hollow Tree were defined by two foot high stone walls; the white-painted colonial homes set back, almost hidden among the maple and oak trees. I knew, from the moment that I turned into their driveway, that these folks were different from me.

When I saw that the May 3 edition of the New Yorker Magazine, had done a piece called “The Greenwich Rebellion,” I was interested.

“In Greenwich, which has an unusually high number of powerful citizens, even by standards of New York suburbs, Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. Bush) cast a large shadow, he was an investment banker, the moderator of the town council and, from 1952 to 1963, a United States senator. In Washington he was President Eisenhower’s golf partner, and the embodiment of what Ike called ‘modern Republicanism.’”

The piece talks about these sailing and jodhpur-wearing folk; their values, especially their a sense of societal responsibility — responsibility for those living in lesser places, lesser circumstances. Then asks the question, “How did America’s country club Republicans, the cultural descendants of Prescott Bush, learn to love Donald Trump?”

Part of the answer involved the invasion of big-monied people who coalesced around Ronald Reagan rejecting the moderation of their George H. W. Bush-supporting neighbors. One of these men was Allie Hanley who had made his money in the brick-and-oil business.

“In the next three decades, Hanley and other wealthy conservatives — Richard Scaife, John Olin, the Koch brothers — helped train a generation of Republicans in Congress to adhere to ideological orthodoxy.”

The New Yorker says this cultural change was manifest in Greenwich where “many of the new estates were no longer surrounded by simple stone walls, stacked to the height of a farmer’s hip, that crossed the New England landscape. Instead, the builders introduced an imposing barrier; tall, stately walls of chiseled stone, mortared in place.” These walls were often 6 feet tall and sometimes taller.

These walls, called “Greenwich Walls,” were now protecting “financiers and economists (who had) opened vast new realms of speculation and financial engineering — aggressive methods to bet securities, merge businesses, and cut expenses using bankruptcy laws. US stock markets grew twelve-fold, and most of the gains accrued to the wealthiest Americans. By 2017, Wall Streeters were taking home 23 percent of the country’s corporate profits — and home, for many of them, was Connecticut.”

When Trump took an early lead in 2015, most of the political and financial world ignored him. “Not one person had a pleasant thing to say about Trump” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld (Yale School of Management) told the NewYorker. But soon many Greenwich people made a calculated choice.

“When the choice is between two ideologies, then it’s a luxury to dwell on the personalities of the candidates,” Thomas Peterfly, a Greenwich billionaire said to the author.

The author concludes, “On the ground where I grew up, some America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embrace a fable of self-reliance (except where the fable is untenable), a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit. In the long battle between self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self.”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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