Notebook — From the March 2009 issue

Achievetrons

Few men are so disinterested as to prefer to live in discomfort under a government which they hold to be right, rather than in comfort under one which they hold to be wrong.

—C. V. Wedgwood

President Barack Obama’s Christmas shopping for cabinet officers in December of last year prompted the national news media to rejoice in the glad tiding that his campaign slogan, “Change you can believe in,” was just and only that, a slogan. Instead of showing himself partial to “closet radicals” who might pose some sort of deep downfield threat to the status quo, Obama was choosing wisely from the high-end, happy few, dispensing with “the romantic and failed notion” that individuals never before seen on the White House lawn could provide the “maturity” needed “in a time of war and economic crisis.” David Brooks assured his readers in the New York Times that the incoming apparat, its members “twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them,” embodied “the best of the Washington insiders.” “Achievetrons . . . who got double 800s on their SATs,” said Brooks, taking pains to list the schools from which they had received diplomas (Columbia, Harvard, Wellesley, Harvard Law, Stanford, Yale Law, Princeton, etc.) attesting to the worth of their wise counsel. Karl Rove, former advance man for President George W. Bush, informed the Wall Street Journal that Tim Geithner (Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins) as secretary of the Treasury and Larry Summers (M.I.T., Harvard) as director of the National Economic Council were “solid picks,” both investments rated “reassuring” and “market-oriented.” Max Boot, contributor to Commentary and visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, advised the wandering spirits in the blogosphere that “only churlish partisans of both the left and the right” could quarrel with the naming of Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law) as secretary of state and Robert Gates (Georgetown) as secretary of defense, appointments that “could just as easily have come from a President McCain.”

The mood was not as festive in the workshops of the romantic left, but even the churls who thought the appointees insufficiently progressive in their views of the American future took comfort in the remembrance of their candidate saying somewhere in a post-election speech, “Understand where the vision for change comes from. First and foremost, it comes from me.” David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, told the Washington Post that although the hotheads among his acquaintance were “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied,” they held fast to the belief that Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) would set the agenda, reprogram the operatives complicit in the stupidity and cynicism of the Bush and Clinton administrations; pragmatism was the watchword, and the dawning of a bright new day was guaranteed by the installation of what Brooks proclaimed a “valedictocracy,” post-partisan and non-ideological, its shoes shined, its hair combed, its ambition neatly pressed.

The recommendation deserves to be ranked with the ones until recently in vogue at the Palm Beach Country Club among the members acquainted with the achievetron Bernie Madoff. For the past sixty years the deputies assigned to engineer the domestic and foreign policies of governments newly arriving in Washington have come outfitted with similar qualifications— first-class schools, state-of-the-art networking, apprenticeship in a legislative body or a think tank—and for sixty years they have managed to weaken rather than strengthen the American democracy, ending their terms of office as objects of ridicule if not under threat of criminal arrest.

The Harvard wunderkinds (a.k.a. “the best and the brightest”) who followed President John F. Kennedy  into the White House in 1961 hung around the map tables long enough to point the country in the direction of the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger, another Harvard prodigy, imparted to American statecraft the modus operandi of a Mafia cartel. The Reagan Administration imported its book of revelation from the University of Chicago’s School of Economics (“privatization” the watchword, “unfettered free market” the Christian name for Zeus) and by so doing set in motion what lately has come to be seen as a long- running Ponzi scheme. Take into account the Ivy League’s contributions to the Bush Administration—Attorney General John Ashcroft (Yale), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton), director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (Harvard)—and I can imagine a doctoral thesis commissioned by the Kennedy School of Government and meant to determine which of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning over the past fifty years has done the most damage to the health and happiness of the American people.

It’s conceivable that the Obama Administration will prove itself the exception to the rule, but when the president says that his vision for change “comes from me” he leaves open the question as to whether he intends to generate it ex cathedra or ex nihilo. Neither method offers much chance of success if what is wanted or required is a recasting of the American democracy on a scale comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Socioeconomic alterations of a magnitude sufficient to be recognized as such tend to be collective enterprises, usually brought about by powers of mind and forces of circumstance outside, not inside, the circle of A-list opinion—the barbarians at the gates of fifth-century Rome, the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation personae non gratae at the Vatican, the authors of the American Constitution far removed from the certain truths seated on velvet cushions in eighteenth-century London. Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps Lincoln’s most effective general, was virtually unknown to the War Office in Washington before the bombardment of Fort Sumter; during the Great Depression of the 1930s, FDR composed a “Brain Trust” of individuals (some of them academics, others not, none of them rounded up from the quorum of usual suspects) as willing as the president to “take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly, and try another.”

The courses of undergraduate instruction at our prestigious colleges and universities no longer encourage or reward the freedoms of mind likely to disturb the country’s social and political seating plan. During the early years of the twentieth century, before America fell afoul of the dream of empire, the students on the lawns of academe, most of them inheritors of wealth and social position, already were assured of their getting ahead in the world. They could afford to take chances, to read or not to read the next day’s letter from Virginia Woolf or Julius Caesar, to mess up the protocols of political correctness, worship false gods, maybe go to Paris to try their luck with absinthe, their hand and eye at modern art or ancient decadence. If they strayed into the wilderness of politics, they did so in the manner of both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, with the enthusiasm of the amateur explorer.

The amateur spirit, which is also the democratic spirit, didn’t survive the rising of the American nation-state from the ashes of Dresden and Hiroshima. The Cold War with the Russians brought with it the lesson that even the most amiable and well-intentioned of republics can’t afford to leave home without a “meritocracy” so lacking in a disrespectful turn of mind as to be fit for service not only at the White House and the CIA but also with General Motors and the New York Times. The doctrines of egalitarianism forbid the convenience of a ruling elite present at birth. The product must be fabricated, not in the same volume as the light trucks made in Detroit, or the cattle fattened in the Omaha feed lots, but as a priority deemed equally essential to the homeland security. After some trouble with the realignment of the educational objective during the excitements of the 1960s, the universities accepted their mission as way stations on the pilgrim road to enlightened selfishness. As opposed to the health and happiness of the American people, what is of interest is the wealth of the American corporation and the power of the American state, the syllabus geared to the arts and sciences of career management—how to brighten the test scores, assemble the résumé, clear the luggage through the checkpoints of the law and business schools. The high fees charged by the brand-name institutions include surer access to the nomenklatura that writes the nation’s laws, operates its government, manages its money, and controls its news media. The catalogue also offers electives in the examined life, but the consolations of philosophy hold little value for a novitiate encouraged to believe that its acceptance into a company of the elect dispenses with the unwelcome news that there might be more things in heaven and earth than those accounted for in Forbes magazine’s annual list of America’s top 400 fortunes. Achievetrons learn to work the system, not to change it, to punch up the PowerPoints for Citigroup and Disney and figure the exchange rate between an awkward truth and a user-friendly lie. Where is the percentage in overthrowing the idols of the marketplace or the tribe? If you’re not in, you’re out, and when was out the better place to be?

Which isn’t to say that Hillary Clinton hasn’t read the letters of Abraham Lincoln, or that Tim Geithner doesn’t know how to analyze (in three languages and five currencies) a Four Seasons hotel bill; that Robert Gates isn’t familiar with the theory of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, or that Larry Summers might make the mistake of turning to face Jerusalem instead of Mecca when begging money from a Saudi prince. What it does suggest is that President Obama’s household staff, in accordance with the protocols observed by “the best of the Washington insiders,” can be counted upon to place their own self-interest first and foremost and to avoid fooling around with initiatives that threaten to leave a stain on the rug. Clinton as senator from New York in 2002 voted for the invasion of Iraq not because she knew or cared why America was embarking on a mindless war but because what was wanted was a cheerful waving of the pom-poms and the flag; Geithner as the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank in the winter of 2007 neglected to address the impending trouble in the credit markets because to have done so would have upset the Wall Street achievetrons folding and refolding sets of imaginary numbers into paper hats and airplanes; Gates as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s painted his portrait of the evil Soviet empire to match the one walking around in Ronald Reagan’s head, unwilling to believe that the Red Menace was mortal until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 exposed his intelligence estimates as works of science fiction; Summers in 1998 as President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury served as one of the principal sponsors of our current financial debacle, facilitating repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and joining with Secretary Robert Rubin (Harvard, Yale Law) and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan (New York University) to force the resignation of Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, who urged regulation of the markets in new derivatives. The motion to block the large-scale accumulation of toxic debt ran counter to the belief, then all the rage among the bankers at JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs as among the members of the Palm Beach Country Club, that money, deftly cultivated by its cronies, grows on trees.

Obama, in his custom-tailored personae both as a United States senator and as a presidential candidate, draped himself in the same accommodating cloth—careful to avoid offending the people who count, content to leave the management of the country’s finances to the discretion of the Wall Street banks, its Middle Eastern policy to the judgment of the Israeli lobby, its public-health care under the supervision of the insurance syndicates, its bankruptcy laws in the hands of the credit-card companies, its military spending to the wisdom of the Pentagon. During last year’s election campaign he enjoyed the advantage of an incoherent opponent, a faltering economy, and the incumbent Bush Administration’s record of failure and disgrace. His efficient acquisition of money and votes proved him to be a capable entrepreneur, his eloquence showed him to be a charismatic politician. The greater achievement—the act of electing a black man to the White House, not the image of the actor—is that of the American citizenry, a collective enterprise drawing together the energies of the democratic spirit contained in the belief that what is great about America is not the greatness of its gross domestic product but the greatness of its love of liberty.

Our leading voices of informed opinion like to say that America now finds itself in a state of unprecedented crisis, the whole of our political and economic enterprise trembling on the verge of extinction. They call upon the president to be “bold,” to throw the moneychangers out of the temple, bail out the banks and the automobile industry, disgorge from the Augean stable on Capitol Hill its dungheap of cowardice and self-congratulation. I don’t know anybody who questions President Obama’s willingness to perform the labors of Hercules, but where does he find the lionskin and the club? The redistributions of the society’s rich and poor require the hiring of domestic help willing to move the furniture. Achievetrons don’t do floors and windows. As individuals they make very good company, and at the tables down at Mory’s the magic of their singing no doubt casts its spell, but if they have paid attention to their studies, they can be trusted to know, as does the valedictocracy otherwise known as the national news media, that it’s a far, far better thing to live in comfort under a government they hold to be wrong than in discomfort under a government they hold to be right.

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Lewis H. Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper’s Magazine and the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly.

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