George W. Bush comes as close as anyone to representing the current American aristocracy. It is not that the Bushes are old family or even old money. The family fortunes are usually traced back to great-grandfather Samuel Bush, a middleweight railroad magnate in Columbus, Ohio. Samuel’s son Prescott raised the family to national prominence by allying his fortunes with fellow Yalie (and fellow Bonesman) Averell Harriman and his family with Harriman’s top banker, Bert Walker. With the Harriman connection, it seemed almost natural for the U.S. government to put old Samuel in charge of munitions manufacturing during World War I, and ever since, the Bush family has faithfully represented the interests of what fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”
George II has been a blue chip off of George I’s portfolio, both in his loyalty to multinational interests and in his curious inability to speak a coherent sentence that has not been rehearsed a dozen times. As Ann Richards (or her speechwriter) said so memorably of George Herbert Walker Bush, “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Perhaps it is a learning disability; perhaps it is the result of being in so privileged a position that it is impossible to speak directly of anything. Either way, the Georges “come by it honest,” since Sen. Prescott Bush (as Gary Wills pointed out some years ago) was almost as incoherent as both his son and grandson, and some day the inability to speak English will be as convincing a sign of royalty as hemophilia or the Habsburg jaw.
Of course, this is America, where dynasties and aristocracies are forbidden, which is why George I dropped the final “g” from his present participles and cultivated a taste for checked shirts and bad country music. (Lee Greenwood was his campaign singer!) In fact, George I was a dead ringer for the conservative senator whom Andy Griffith tries to turn into a good ol’ boy at the end of Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd. In the movie, an honest network employee reveals both Andy and his senator for the frauds they are. In real life, frauds become TV producers and presidents.
George II has gone one better in abandoning the presidential church (Episcopal) for the decidedly down-market Methodists. This poor-mouth strategy is not a new invention: William Henry Harrison, scion of a Virginia planter family, staged the first log-cabin campaign, and some years before Harrison, a patrician gangster named Publius Claudius Pulcher changed the spelling of his name to the more popular “Clodius” and arranged with a more powerful gangster (one Gaius Julius Caesar) to get himself adopted into a plebeian family.
Although George II apparently shares with Bill Clinton a robust appetite for common pleasures, poor Clinton has had to spend his life proving he is not the cracker that his family has produced since the beginning of time. (If there had been a Clinton in the Garden of Eden, he would have been running a still and trying to make time with Eve. “Forget that ‘knowledge of good and evil’ stuff, babe, and let me show you how to have a good time.”)
Despite the games they are forced to play. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, both Bushes, and all the Kennedy cousins do, in fact, exemplify the American ruling class of our day as much as the Adamses and the Roosevelts did in theirs. From John I to Brooks and Henry was a “descent from glory” indeed, but now here near so precipitous a decline as the road that went from Adams to Roosevelt to Kennedy. The Kennedys and Clintons—and, yes, the Bushes—are a far cry even from the mandarins ridiculed by Joe McCarthy Dean Acheson may have been a “pompous diplomat in striped pants,” but he was a fair imitation of a gentleman. Neither Madeleine Albright nor the members of the Bush Cabinet would know the meaning of the word.
Here is the dilemma: Every society requires leaders, and (as Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, among others, have explained) the leadership class stamps its mark upon society; yet our own leaders—since at least the beginning of the last century—have been self-seeking, corrupt, and alienated from the culture of most decent Americans. More recently, our leaders have shown that they are incapable even of leading—of properly managing a small war for example, or of subordinating their libido dominandi to their libido. We need an aristocracy, but we have to settle for Bill Gates and Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton and Ted Turner.
Readers of Sir Walter Scott and admirers of Sir Philip Sidney may confuse aristocracy with chivalry or with “the gentleman.” But not all aristocracies are chivalrous. Cincinnatus and Leonidas the Spartan were not especially gentle people; neither were William Wallace, Hereward the Wake, Castruccio Castricane, or (for that matter) Geronimo, all of whom sacrificed their comforts and risked their lives to defend their people and advance their interests. Chivalry is a fine and noble concept, but it does not define the essence of aristocracy, the plain meaning of which is “the rule of the best and bravest.” Even Castiglione, the very model of the Renaissance courtier, concedes that martial courage is the chief virtue: “I judge the principall and true profession of a Courtyer ought to be in feates of armes, the which Armes the Courtvers chiefe profession.”
In Greek, the key words which we translate as “good,” “best,” and “virtue”—agathos, aristos, arete— were all connected with manliness and courage, while bad men are preeminently cowards. Nietzsche made the point a long time ago, but it is no less true for Nietzsche having said it. The simplest aristocratic code is the advice Peleus gave his son Achilles: “Always be the best and fight among the champions in the front ranks.” “Such heroism is the reason,” explains one of Achilles’ opponents, “that the princes are first served at banquets.” Goodness was also a class distinction (as at Rome), and the agathoi and the aristoi (like Cicero’s boni) were members of the hereditary nobility, The crusty reactionary Theognis complained that virtue was contaminated when good men, who had fallen on hard times, married the daughters of the nouveaux riches.
Inherited nobility seems a laughable concept in the land of the Rockefellers and Harrimans. For centuries, sympathetic foreigners have been saying, “Give the Americans some time. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a patriciate is the work of centuries.” Actually, the reverse is true: Aristocracies are forged in battle and conflict and steadily degenerate in more settled times. But even an effete and degenerate aristocracy has its uses. In her memoirs, Kathleen Raine said that she had grown tired, early on, of her intellectual friends for deriding the British upper classes, who retained an almost tribal knowledge of living well.
In fact, intellectuals can talk all day about how other people should live without ever learning how to spend a pleasant afternoon or—what is more serious—how to accept responsibility. Evelyn Waugh’s Tony Last (in A Handful of Dust) is a figure of fun, reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford’s more tragic Tietjens, but both Tony and Tietjens are honorable men who, with quiet courage, hold up their end of every bargain, even when their wives and friends betray them. I do not actually know many such people (save a few in South Carolina, most of them long dead by now), but they provide a hint of what an aristocracy could do for this postdemocratic society.
In a feudal age, the aristocracy is made up of warriors, but war is not the only pursuit of the aristocrat. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, a landowner was expected to be of service, whether as justice of the peace or member of Parliament, and although we may doubt the inspiring portrait drawn by Clarendon of Viscount Falkland or Fielding’s fictional portrayal of Squire Allworthy, the least we can say is that they represented a social ideal that is as alien to us as a virtuous woman.
Even today, the grandsons of robber barons and tobacco merchants spend much of their time defending wilderness areas and endangered species from the predations of our contemporary robber barons. We may laugh at the spectacle of spoiled fops who go on television to champion the cause of a newt threatened with extinction, but we should at least acknowledge that the impulse is noble. Sierra Clubbers with seven-figure incomes may be deaf to the cries of America’s working poor, but they have found a cause beyond themselves. They cannot, after all, help being stupid and degenerate, because those are the identifying marks of the ruling class to which they belong.
Americans have simultaneously idolized and demonized aristocracy. The Society of the Cincinnati was denounced as an aristocratic cabal by the very people who worshiped the Marquis de Lafayette precisely because he was a marquis. In fact, we have had precious little nobility of any kind throughout our history. Georgie Minafer (in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons) insists that three generations are enough to take the taint of enterprise from a family fortune, but the Amberson money is lost in his lifetime.
During the 18th century, both South Carolina and Virginia were ruled by country gentlemen who felt at home in Europe. New York, Boston, and Charleston all had a merchant aristocracy before the Revolution, but in the North, the aristocrats were mostly Tories and fled to Canada and to England. In years to come, their bourgeois successors (Adamses, Otises, et al.) aped the anglophilia of the Tories and, as a result, their nascent little civilization failed by the early 18th century, and Northeastern literature (from the charming Washington Irving to the grumpy Henry Adams) became a series of vetos on everything distinctively American. The Adamses, for all their failings, did at least maintain some semblance of public spirit. Henry’s father, Charles Francis, was virtually the only honorable man in the Lincoln administration, and he ably served the Union cause as ambassador to the Court of St. James.
The South was luckier. Many aristocrats staved behind to defend the people and places to which they were attached, and they succeeded in assimilating (as the English were also assimilating in their own country) wave after wave nouveaux riches planters and merchants. The old English aristocracy of the South, as Mrs. Chesnutt observed during the War between the States, had been displaced by rougher Anglo-Celtic types (Jackson, Calhoun, Davis) who had quickly adopted their predecessors’ mores. Jefferson Davis was born in a log house. His enterprising father and ambitious older brother eased young Jeff’s way into the society he would adorn, and if he always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the Old World of the Virginians, he rarely showed it.
Whatever chance there was for an American aristocracy perished in the war that set the descendants of John Adams against the heirs of George Washington (Robert M. Lee, the son of Washington’s great cavalry chief, was married to Martha Custis’s great-granddaughter). Henry Adams knew the truth and complained bitterly about the greedy riff-raff that took over the country during the Grant administration and have never relinquished their grip.
In the 20th century, the best Americans were the entrepreneurial business class that Tarkington champions in The Plutocrat: Crude, unlettered, and clownish (for the most part), they loved their cities and endlessly improved the amenities of life (and boosted their own achievements). Just at the point when they might have become a civilizing force—when Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was turning into Dodsworth—they were destroyed by the New Deal and the war that sucked the vitality out of Cleveland and Chicago and made New York the American capitol down to the 1980’s, when government grew so great that Washington became, at last, the real center of the American universe.
For Americans who long for a responsible leadership class (whether they call it an aristocracy or a new elite), time is running out—or, rather, it has run out. Such classes bubble up from the people, or at least from the yeomanry and independent businessmen. In America, there is no “people” to speak of any more, much less a yeomanry; we are a nation of well-fed TV watchers and resentful minorities. No populist revolution can come from such a stock: If you think it can, you have not lived out here in the heartland. Our best men remain the smaller entrepreneurs who are, one by one, falling prey to the gigantic interests that have skillfully co-opted the trillion-dollar multinational corporation that calls itself the U.S. government. Before we can begin to speak of an American aristocracy, or of a responsible elite class, we shall have to reinvent (or invent) some formative institutions—a church, a school, a society—that are informed by a code of honor somewhat more stringent than we have demanded from recent American presidents.