Rich Kids

Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class

by Nelson Aldrich
Knopf, 309 pp., $19.95

The class imagery of the presidential campaign is important but peculiar. George Bush has only recently looked as if he might escape from the image of the invisible “Poppy” from Skull and Bones, lampooned so wittily in Doonesbury. Bush’s image is odd not simply because of his well-known war record and his fling as a Texas entrepreneur but also because his family is apparently only the third richest of the four in the race. Bush says that his personal net worth is about $2 million. This does not include the assets of his extended family, but there is no indication so far that he is the heir of a great fortune. Dan Quayle says that his personal assets total less than $1 million, but his family’s trust holdings in the Central Newspapers, Inc., chain in Indiana are reported to be worth more than $400 million. (The trust was established by Quayle’s grandfather, the newspaper magnate Eugene Pulliam. Under its terms, Quayle cannot inherit the principal assets of the trust. But he will eventually receive a share of its income and could inherit other significant blocks of newspaper stock.) Spokesmen for Lloyd Bentsen, whose father built a land-development empire in the Rio Grande valley of southernmost Texas, say that they will “not dispute” reports that Bentsen is worth more than $10 million. Only Michael Dukakis, the son of immigrants, is poorer than Bush, but not by much. His personal assets are reported to be worth about $500,000, and he stands to inherit about $1 million more.

Of the four men Bentsen is the one whose personal bearing seems in keeping with his background and balance sheet. Bentsen acts like what he is: a confident member of a provincial aristocracy, accustomed to great power in his own region (he was more or less anointed to a seat in Congress when he was in his twenties) but unmistakably a product of one region, not of a national upper class. Bentsen went to college at the University of Texas, not at an Ivy League school. This is a mark of seriousness about success in Texas politics and business, whether for rich boys like Bentsen or poor boys like John Connally. After a few terms in Congress, Bentsen got bored, returned to his base, and made his own fortune, in Houston, in the insurance business, where his father’s financial backing, name, and connections were of obvious help. The disagreements over policy between Bentsen and Dukakis are a somewhat obscure issue in the campaign, and Bentsen’s record as a water-carrier for business interests in Congress is an even more deeply buried issue that deserves attention. But Bentsen’s “character” is rarely debated, mainly because there is no mysterious discrepancy between background and behavior to be explained.

With all the others, something seems askew. Dukakis makes much of his frugal immigrant upbringing, but it’s as if he skipped a generation in the normal process of assimilation. His father, after all …

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