In Merced or Dayton, if an insurance agent, eager to help his wife facing indictment, barged into a restaurant where the local DA is known to lunch, he would almost certainly be told to get the hell out.
But among the Washington elite, the scenario is apparently quite different. The two parties, in supposedly serendipitous fashion, just happen to touch down at the same time on the Phoenix corporate tarmac, with their private planes pulling up nose to nose. Then the attorney general of the United States and her husband, in secrecy enforced by federal security details, welcome the ex-president onto her government plane. Afterward, and only when caught, the prosecutor and the husband of the person under investigation assure the world that they talked about everything except Hillary Clinton’s possible indictment, Loretta Lynch’s past appointment by Bill Clinton and likely judicial future, or the general quandary of 2016.
There has been a lot of talk since Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump of the corrosive power and influence of the “elite” and the “establishment.” But to quote Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?”
In the case of the ancient Romans or of the traditional British ruling classes, land, birth, education, money, government service, and cultural notoriety were among the ingredients that made one an establishmentarian. But our modern American elite is a bit different.
Residence, either in the Boston–Washington, D.C., or the San Francisco–Los Angeles corridor, often is a requisite. Celebrity and public exposure count — e.g., access to traditional television outlets (as opposed to hoi polloi Internet blogging). So does education — again, most often a coastal-corridor thing: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, etc.
Net worth, whether made or inherited, helps. But lots of billionaires, especially Midwestern sorts, are not part of the elite, in that their money does not necessarily translate into much political or cultural influence — or influence of the right sort. (Exceptions are Chicago traders who bundle millions for Hillary.)
Especially influential are the revolving-door multimillionaires, especially from big banks and Wall Street — the Tim Geithners, Jack Lews, Hank Paulsons, and Robert Rubins, but also the lesser flunkies of the Freddie/Fannie Clintonite crowd, a Franklin Raines (raking in $90 million) or a Jamie Gorelick ($26 million), all of whom came into the White House and its bureaucracies to get rich, but who always seem shocked when the public does not like their incestuous trails of bailouts, relief plans, favorable regulations, etc.
Creepy too are the satellite grifters like “investment banker” Rahm Emanuel — who somehow, between the White House and the House of Representatives, made off with $16 million for his financial “expertise” — or Chelsea Clinton, who made her fortune ($15 million?) largely by being a “consultant” for a Wall Street investment group (her fluff job at NBC News was small potatoes in comparison). The locus classicus, of course, is the Clinton power marriage itself, which invested nearly 40 years of public service in what proved to be a gargantuan pay-for-play payoff, when they parlayed Hillary’s political trajectories into a personal fortune of well over $100 million. Give them credit: From the early days, when they would write off as IRS deductions gifts of their used underwear, they ended up 30 years later getting paid $10,000 to $60,000 a minute for their Wall Street riffs.
The nexus between Big Government, Big Money, Big Influence, and Big Media is sometimes empowered by familial journalistic continuity (e.g., John Dickerson, son of Nancy Dickerson) or a second generation of fashion/glitz and media (Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper), but again is increasingly expressed in the corridor “power couple,” the sorts who receive sycophantic adulation in New York and Washington monthly magazines. The Andrea Mitchell/Alan Greenspan power marriage was hailed as a threefer of media, government, and money. What was so strange, however, was just how often wrong were Mitchell in her amateurishly politicized rants and Greenspan in his cryptic Delphic prophecies — and always in areas of their supposedly greatest expertise.
Take also the Obama Cabinet. When we wonder how Susan Rice could go on television on five occasions in a single day to deceive about Benghazi; or John Kerry — in the middle of a war whose results Obama would come to call a “stable” and “self-reliant” democratic Iraq — could warn American youth that the punishment for poor school performance was “to get stuck in Iraq”; or Jay Carney (now senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Amazon) and Josh Earnest could both repeatedly mislead the country on Benghazi, the reason may be not just that they felt their influence, status, and privilege meant they were rarely responsible for the real-world consequences of their own rhetoric, but that they had forgotten entirely the nature of middle-class America, or never really knew it at all.
I get the impression that members of the D.C. elite do not wait in line with a sick kid in the emergency room on a Saturday night, when the blood flows and the supporters of rival gangs have to be separated in the waiting room; or that they find dirty diapers, car seats, and dead dogs tossed on their lawns, or wait two hours at the DMV, or are told that their journalistic assignment was outsourced to India, or read public-school teachers’ comments on their kids’ papers that were ungrammatical and misspelled to the point of being incomprehensible. The elite seems to be ignorant that, about 1975, Bedford Falls flyover country started to become Pottersville.
In forming perceptions about Benghazi, the Iran deal, globalization, or illegal immigration, it is sometimes hard to know who is making policy and who is reporting and analyzing such formulations — or whether they are one and the same. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is married to former ABC television producer Ian Cameron. Ben Rhodes, who drew up the talking-points deceptions about Benghazi and seemed to boast of deceiving the public about the Iran deal, is the brother of CBS News president David Rhodes. Will 60 Minutes do one of its signature hit pieces on Ben Rhodes?
Secretary of State John Kerry — who famously docks his yacht in Rhode Island in order to avoid paying Massachusetts taxes on it — is married to Teresa Heinz, the billionaire widow of the late senator and catsup heir John Heinz. Former Obama press secretary Jay Carney married Claire Shipman, senior national correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America; his successor, Josh Earnest, married Natalie Wyeth, a veteran of the Treasury Department. Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s “body woman,” is married to creepy sexter Anthony Weiner; perhaps she was mesmerized by his stellar political career, his feminist credentials, and his tolerant approach to deviancy? And on and on it goes.
These Christiane Amanpour/Jamie Rosen or Samantha Power/Cass Sunstein types of connections could be explored to the nth degree, especially their moth-to-the-flame progressive fixations with maximizing privilege, power, and class. But my purpose is not to suggest some conspiratorial cabal of D.C. and New York insiders, only to note that an increasing number of government and media elites are so entangled with each other, leveraging lucrative careers in politics, finance, and the media, and doubling their influence through marriage, that they have scant knowledge of and less concern for the clingers who live well beyond their coastal-corridor moats. And so when reality proves their preconceptions wrong — from Benghazi to Brexit — they have only outrage and disdain to fall back on.
Sometimes their smug isolation is the stuff of caricature. Mark Zuckerberg waxes poetically on about the illiberality of building border walls (e.g., “I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others”), but he is now simultaneously involved in three controversies involving either hyper-private security patrols or walls or both as he seeks to use his fortune to create Maginot Lines around his Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Hawaii properties to keep the wrong sort of people quite distant.
I should end by returning to Hillary Clinton, whose insider arc from the cattle-futures con to quarter-million-dollar Wall Street chats to the e-mail scandal shares the common and persistent theme of influence peddling, greed, and lying, while she lectures Americans about the need for trust, fairness, and transparency. Or perhaps I should finish with Chelsea, a chip off the old blockess, who became instantly rich as she decried the culture’s overemphasis on wealth, and whose husband’s hedge fund is tottering, after disastrously investing in Greek bailout bonds — at a time when his mother-in-law and Sidney Blumenthal were exchanging classified speculations over whether German banks would guarantee Greek debt and hence investors’ money.
But I conclude on a much more sober, judicious, and appropriately unimpeachable D.C. figure, the rightly revered Thomas Pickering, career diplomat, bipartisan Council on Foreign Relation fixture, co-chairman of blue-ribbon investigative committees, and perhaps heir to the itinerant fixers of a bygone age, such as Sumner Welles, John McCloy, and Clark Clifford. Pickering — multilingual, veteran of hazardous diplomatic posts, confidant to presidents of both parties, and octogenarian “wise man” — was asked by the State Department to conduct its internal investigation of the Benghazi debacle, as chairman of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board.
Four of the five members of this board, including Pickering, were apparently recommended by Hillary Clinton’s own State Department team in good Quis custodiet custodes? style. No one would dare suggest that Pickering, appointed as an undersecretary of state and an ambassador by Bill Clinton, and a well-known Clinton friend, might have various conflicts of interest in investigating fully the allegations that Hillary Clinton refused to beef up security at the consulate in Benghazi, or falsely claimed in public that the loss of four Americans was the result of an inflammatory video, just hours after she confided in e-mail communications that it was a preplanned al-Qaeda attack.
Instead, Pickering decided that Clinton would never appear before his committee and declared that he was not interested in a gotcha finding; yet somehow Clinton aide Cheryl Mills found a way to review the board’s findings before publication. In the end, the State Department chastised and put on leave lowly subordinates for seemingly working within the security parameters established by the sacrosanct secretary of state.
Nor would anyone suggest that the temperate and esteemed Pickering, as a vice president of Boeing from 2001 to 2006, and then a consultant to Boeing from 2006 to 2015, had any special financial interest in promoting the Clinton, and then the Kerry, outreach to Iran. Indeed, Pickering testified before Congress and wrote elegant op-eds about why the Iran non-enrichment accord was a good deal — but without ever quite telling the country that a liberated Iran was also considering a $25 billion purchase of aircraft (with potential dual use as military transports) from Boeing — which just happened to be Pickering’s quite generous corporate client.
Is it all that strange that when Washington fixtures write outraged op-eds about the “fascistic” Donald Trump or the “self-harming” Brexit voters, no one seems to listen any more? Does a Hank Paulson — former assistant to John Erhlichman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs (which has given over $800,000 to Hillary’s campaigns as well as $675,000 in speaking fees), former Treasury secretary, and of some $700 million in net worth — ever sense that his assurances that Hillary is presidential and not corrupt are not believable? Or that the effect of his politicking is analogous to angrily waving a Mexican flag at a Trump rally?
In a sense, these revolving-door apparatchiks and incestuous couples are bullies, who use their megaphones to disparage others who are supposedly blinkered and ignorant to the point of not believing that a videomaker caused the attacks in Libya, not trusting the Iranians, being skeptical about the theory of sanctuary cities, missing the genius of the European Union, not seeing the brilliant logic in allowing in 12 million immigrants from southern Mexico and Central America under unlawful auspices, panicking about $20 trillion in debt, and incapable of appreciating the wonders of outsourcing.
In matters of deception, ostentatious vulgarity never proves as injurious as the hubris of the mannered establishment. So what I resent most about the Washington hollow men is not the sources and methods through which they parlay wealth, power, and influence, or the values they embrace to exercise and perpetuate their privilege and sense of exalted self, but the feigned outrage that they express when anyone dares suggest, by word or vote, that they are mediocrities and ethical adolescents — and really quite emotional, after all.