Wednesday, May 28, 2008

George W. Bush, Flower of the Upper Class - Sort of

I have been working through E. Digby Baltzell's substantial body of work on the sociology of America's upper class. His great books were published 30 to 50 years ago, using material from earlier eras. Some have said that the old WASP upper class was done in by the Sixties. In many ways this is true -- the monied elite was already very ethnically diverse when Baltzell was writing, and since then the happy process of intermarriage and assimilation of new money into old money has moved the upper class far from the WASP bastion it was in, say, 1940. And a good thing, too.

As I read about the old WASP upper class, I have been thinking about who their contemporary remainders are. Which brings us naturally to George W. Bush.

George Bush the younger has the WASPiest pedigree of any prominent political figure today. Andover and Yale. Skull and Bones. His dad was Andover and Yale, and Skull and Bones. His grandfather was St. George's and Yale, and Skull and Bones. Did I mention that that sequence is also President, President, Senator? But there is plenty more. His grandfather was a founding partner of Brown Brothers Harriman. The Walker Cup golf trophy is named for his great-grandfather, from whom George gets his "W." His mom, daughter of the McCalls and Redbook publisher, of President Franklin Pierce's family, product of a northern country day school and a southern boarding school, dropped out of Smith to marry her naval aviator. And his brothers. And his kids. On and on.

And yet ...

Baltzell makes the point that the old WASP upper class was primarily a business aristocracy. The Bushes do keep coming back to business -- banking, then oil. George W. has a Harvard MBA, though that degree was regarded as a comedown by the old business elite. His administration has certainly been business friendly, and largely hands-off about everything else (we may debate the business significance of the Iraq war).

Still, in important ways George W. Bush resisted the Old Money prep school curriculum. George H. W. Bush so exemplified the WASP ideal - sports at Andover, volunteer naval pilot in the war, Bonesman at Yale, business entrepreneur, Congress, CIA, Republican Party, Episcopal Church, loyal Vice-President, President - that a former staffer, Richard Brookhiser, wrote The Way of the WASP: How it Made America, and How it Can Save It, So to Speak about the 41st president.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, did the whole Old Money curriculum, but grudgingly. Where the father was a baseball star at Andover, the son was "stickball commissioner." Where his father volunteered for military service and was shot down, the son used his pull to avoid overseas service, and skipped half of his U.S. obligations. The father was Yale all the way. The son was a reluctant student in college -- the football players used him as the standard of whether a course was easy -- and had to be talked into Skull and Bones. He was an indifferent businessman, a reluctant politician, a "Bushican" more than a Republican, a Methodist.

On the other hand, George W. Bush is a real Texan in a way that his father never was. He clearly likes working on the ranch more than affairs of state. His greatest success outside of politics was as cheerleader and frontman for the Texas Rangers baseball team. I think history will judge him a greater success as Governor of Texas than as President of the United States.

I think I understand President Bush's famous smirk. It means "you can make me go through the motions of this role, but you can't change me inside." I expect he had that look the first day he had to leave Texas for boarding school, and he will have it until he can leave the White House and go back, at long last, to Texas.

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