Edith Wharton for President

Edith Wharton for President

Edith Wharton for President

Policy made plain.
Feb. 4 2000 9:30 PM

Edith Wharton for President

Even in 2000, blue blood still helps. 

In theory, anyone can grow up to be president. In practice, the next president is going to be a graduate of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or the Naval Academy. Chances are he will also be a graduate of either St. Albans School or Phillips Academy Andover. He will be either the son of a senator, the son of a president and grandson of a senator, the son and grandson of an admiral, or—the humblest background and longest shot in the group—the son of a Midwestern banker.

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Given the small slice of the population these privileged backgrounds represent, we have here a spectacular breakdown in the law of averages. Either that or an interesting perspective on American society. To be sure, you don't have to be an aristo to become president. For one thing, George W. Bush is the only full blue blood in the lot. For another, poor white trash defeated Andover-and-Yale Sr. eight years ago. But even in supposedly class-bound Britain it would be considered shocking if the two politicians battling for the top job both had attended hoity private schools.

For decades now we've been hearing about the decline or death of the Protestant Establishment (or the Episcopacy or the WASP Ascendancy or just the Upper Class). In fact, in America we're not supposed to have had an inherited class system. Even left-wing critiques of power in American society tend to emphasize the role of money, not bloodlines.

What is supposed to have replaced the Protestant Establishment is something called meritocracy. Enthusiasts celebrate meritocracy as the perfect human-resources policy for democracy and capitalism: a system in which everyone has equal opportunity to thrive based on his or her own talents and efforts. Skeptics, such as Nicholas Lemann in his current book The Big Test (click here to buy it), see an aristocracy of bloodlines being replaced by an aristocracy of test scores. Even meritocracy is already dead, according to many social critics, mainly conservative. They mourn that meritocracy was killed by affirmative action and political correctness, and succeeded by a social order based on government fiat.

Yet it seems that bloodlines remain remarkably powerful, even in a political culture where denunciation of "elites" is as routine as "God bless America." And it's not just in politics. Even at the cutting edge of the economy, the place where everything is new, where success can strike anyone and failure can too, where capitalism sorts and sifts with blind efficiency, where what you do matters and where you're from doesn't, and blah blah blah—in cyberspace, that is—the law of averages seems to have broken down.

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In the mid-1970s I was a "tutor" (precious term for resident adviser) in a "house" (dormitory) at Harvard. Scott McNealy was there. Now, as founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems, he is one of the biggest cyberbigshots. George Bell was there too, and he's now also a cyberbigshot, CEO of Excite@home, the Web portal and cable access company. The other day I was trying to remember the name of that woman who got hired as CEO of eBay, the auction site, and almost immediately became an IPO billionaire. Was it something like "Meg Whitman"? No, that was Ann Whitman's sister who dated that pre-med guy from Kirkland House and went to Harvard Business School, then moved to San Francisco, and oh my gosh! Steve Ballmer, now CEO of Microsoft (and therefore my boss), was not in K-House but had friends there and was around a lot. Bill Gates? Maybe he was around too. Who noticed?

All this future royalty of cyberspace in one dorm at one university. Coincidence? Or is there some other explanation? Like almost all dorms at all universities back then—and unlike almost all dorms at all universities now—Kirkland House was definitely not a fertile culture of entrepreneurialism, let alone of computer studies. So that's not the explanation. A Harvard education is good, but not that good. And to get into Harvard you have to be reasonably bright, but you don't have to be a genius. So those possible explanations don't wash either. Among the Harvard students, these folks did not stand out as especially brilliant or promising. You would have liked them, found them intelligent, and predicted happiness and success. But you would not have predicted that they would be among the very top leaders of a new economy that is transforming America.

If these individuals have anything in common, beyond Kirkland House, it's that they're from a group that was already a small minority even at Harvard a generation ago: prep-school WASPs. Whitman and Bell are classic East Coast American blue bloods out of Henry James or Edith Wharton: full members of the club. The others only qualify for various levels of associate membership. McNealy and Ballmer both attended private schools in Detroit, as did Gates in Seattle. McNealy's father was an auto company CEO, Gates' a prominent lawyer.

As in politics, you don't need to be a blue blood to make it in cyberspace. Silicon World probably is as wide open as anyplace in history to talent and energy from any social background, ethnic heritage, citizenship, table manners, or sanitary habits. This isn't investment banking. That's what makes it so interesting that bloodlines and elite institutions still seem to count.

Money can't explain it. The WASP establishment no longer dominates this country financially. None of the cyberpioneers comes from a huge fortune. All four of the leading presidential candidates are rich, but none is impressively rich by current standards. Far richer men have tried using their own fortunes to run for president, so far without success.

Of course, the notion of Ivy League universities as bastions of bloodlines is half a century out of date. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—and the Naval Academy—all claim to be loyal servants of meritocracy now. And that's pretty much true. However, as it happens, each of the four top presidential candidates had—as a senator's son, an alumni son, an admiral's son, or a star athlete—a substantial exemption from the meritocratic rigors of the admission process. So meritocracy can't explain it either.

No, it's not money, and it's not merit in any conventional or at least observable sense. I think it must be genuine moral superiority. What other explanation could there be?