The Breakfast Table

Old Business


A number of readers have written to take me to task for a) referring to my wife without identifying her and b) repeatedly promising to tell a story but never actually getting around to it. Both complaints have merit. So:

a) My wife is an economist named Laura Tyson. She served as an economic adviser during Clinton’s first term. She is not otherwise an especially political person, however, and has never held elected office. She will never be chosen as a running mate by anybody. The fact that her name has been floated by a few well-placed California Democrats is a source of amusement within our household. If it ever started to seem remotely plausible, I would no longer find it even slightly amusing. I have no interest in becoming Second Guy of the Land.

b) The only time I ever saw George W. in the flesh was during the summer of ‘93, at the All-Star Game, which was held at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Because my wife (whose name, incidentally, is Laura Tyson; she’s an economist) was in the government at the time, we had been given the opportunity to buy tickets to the game and to go in style. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced anything like that. Before the game, we attended a lavish, star-studded party in the owner’s suite. Our seats were right behind home plate, eight or nine rows back. It was pretty incredible. Our son was over the moon.

Bush, who was not a political figure at the time–I recognized him from his father’s campaign the previous year–arrived during the second or third inning, with a friend. Their seats were a couple of rows in front of ours. They seated themselves, ate a hot dog, watched two or three innings, and then Bush turned toward his companion and said something like, “Had enough?” After which they got up and left.

What struck me at the time (without any particular rancor, just as a noteworthy datum), was that this was the action of a man who had never been deprived of anything in his life, who had never pressed his nose enviously against a showcase window, who took this sort of luxury for granted. I suspect the first beer he ever drank was a Pilsner Irquell or the equivalent, the first cigar he ever smoked a Cohiba; I’m willing to bet his first car wasn’t a secondhand Valiant or a VW Beetle.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything inherently evil about this state of affairs. The same situation certainly obtains for people named Kennedy and Roosevelt and Rockefeller. Luck is distributed unequally, and there’s no sin in being one of the fortunate few. But I do believe those who are lucky in that way have an obligation to recognize their luck, acknowledge it to themselves, and have sufficient imagination to understand that most people start from a very different place and confront very different obstacles in their lives. This is the genius behind Jim Hightower’s observation about the senior George Bush: “A man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” If you’re that fortunate in your origins, I think it’s incumbent upon you to realize that many others–most others–aren’t. And to have a worldview to match.

For all his talk of “compassion,” I’m not convinced George W. has shown anything of the sort. And since I think he’s actually the beneficiary of a kind of affirmative action–the kind as old as human civilization, affirmative action for the rich and well-connected–I also think his opposition to affirmative action does have a moral dimension (he didn’t, after all, get into Phillips’ Academy and Yale on merit; I’m sure there were plenty of poor kids with better grades and better college boards who were rejected to make room for Bush and other applicants like him). His political philosophy bespeaks a smugness, a complacency about his good fortune which is at the very least unseemly. I’m not offended by the conservatism of self-made men and women; I disagree with them, but they’ve earned the right. Those who have had things presented to them on a salver, on the other hand, ought to consider the possibility they wouldn’t be anywhere without those early assists.

I too want to say a few words about the Jim Kolbe incident–the story caught my eye this morning, as it did yours–but I’ve already taken up more than enough space for one posting. Now that I’ve cleared my decks, I can operate freely for the rest of the day.