One of the more annoying gaucheries of the British tabloid press is that of always referring to the Kennedys as “American royalty.” Back in 1963, with JFK still alive and in the White House, I escorted C.Z. Guest, a true American patrician, to a Park Avenue party given by Sam Spiegel, producer of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and other such megahits. The place was full of Kennedy acolytes and brothers-in-law. I knew Peter Lawford well, a terrible drunk and a very mean-spirited, unpleasant man who pimped for JFK. Steve Smith, married to Jean Kennedy, was much nicer but also a heavy drinker. When I introduced him to C.Z. he said something crude, and she walked away. When I asked her what he had said, she dismissed it, saying, “What can one expect nowadays from a shanty Irishman like him?”
“What’s a shanty Irishman?” I asked.
“People like the Kennedys,” said C.Z.
Oh, well, that was 45 years ago, when people would say such a thing, as opposed to now, when people think it but dare not say it. Back then elitism ruled, but now no words arouse the wrath of the mean-minded with greater certainty than the words elite and elitist. To the envious and the resentful they have connotations of conspiracy, unearned privilege, injustice, and illicit self-enrichment, to the exclusion of everyone else. Politicians and the press love to use the words in a pejorative way, appealing to mindless egalitarianism and stirring up hatred and paranoia.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Without elites and elitism, man would still be in the caves. Every achievement of civilization is the achievement of an elite. Mind you, most people confuse the word elitist with snob. They are yoked in a common pillory, as creatures whom any decent man would shun. In fact, they are quite different types. A snob is a despicable person who attaches exaggerated importance to birth and wealth, looks down on people without either, and claims unfounded friendships with the eminent. Elitists, on the other hand, are people who have gained distinction by their own efforts, whatever their profession or trade. When C.Z. used the word shanty, she was, admittedly, being snobbish, but she was, after all, playing at being snobby. Had she not been a lady she would have repeated Smith’s crude advance. Snobbishness is unmerited and cruel. The last thing C.Z. Guest was trying to be was cruel.
Which brings me to Caroline Kennedy. That is her maiden name. She is now Caroline Schlossberg, but the snobs in the media prefer to call her Caroline Kennedy. I have no idea as of this writing whether Governor Peterson will appoint her junior senator, and frankly I don’t care. One more incompetent in the Senate will make absolutely no difference. American democracy has been sold to the highest bidder, and those elected or appointed have long ago sold out to special interests. If she’s appointed, all it will prove is that the governor is a snob. She certainly hasn’t done anything to deserve being called an elite.
Snobbism has great allure. One time last year I sat down at a table and was introduced to a young woman who went by the name of Hearst. “Who is your mother?” I asked her, as I know a few female Hearsts.
“It’s Patty,” she told me. Which meant that the young woman’s name was Shaw, not Hearst, as children have been assuming their father’s surname since time immemorial. If my daughter and son called themselves princess and prince Schoenburg, I would really take umbrage. Plain old Theodoracopulos will do nicely for them, as both my children are as far removed from snobbism as is possible.
Let’s face it: Snobs do not count as elite. What I find quite amusing is the fact that in America people brag about their country being—unlike Europe—a true democracy. Privilege of birth does not count. Surely they are right. That is why we have Bushes in the White House, Kennedys in the Senate and the House, Clintons in the White House and the Senate, and Rockefellers as veep and senators. Whereas in Europe we have a Sarkozy in France, whose old man was a gigolo type one step away from the law; a Brown in Britain, son of a low-church minister; and a Berlusconi in Italy who, once upon a time, made his living singing on a cruise liner.
See what I mean about snobbism? The Kennedys have a long history of it. Back in 1964, they got Pat Brown, the Democratic governor of California, to appoint JFK’s ex-press secretary Pierre Salinger to finish the term of a senator who had died. A little later, Salinger was trounced in the polls in the biggest Republican landslide ever, and by an actor to boot, George Murphy. I suppose Californians were not as snobby back then as they are now.
Cheap demagoguery confuses an elite not only with snobbism but with an oligarchy. The Kennedy, Bush, and Clinton oligarchies are a joke. An elite exists by virtue of its superiority, both aesthetic and intellectual. Saying “you know?” 200 times in ten minutes is hardly intellectual. Elitism is open to new talent—indeed, welcomes it. Naming Hillary secretary of state has as much merit as naming Monica Lewinsky head of protocol. Long live elitism. Down with snobbery.