Human beings understand the world by its contrasts. How could we recognize wealth if poverty did not exist? What cause would there be to call something or someone “black” if we have no conception of what it means to be “white”? What sense would it make to be happy if sadness were unknown?
Among the many contrasts that we repeatedly construct to better understand the world are the contrasts between underprivileged and over-privileged lives. Between the humility of Main Street and the hubris of Wall Street, between the roaring chorus of the 99 percent and the self-satisfied quietude of the 1 percent, are the most striking contrasts in America today. We now live in a country grappling with its own inability to quell the tide of resentment, indignation and jealousy that poisons the barbs of class warfare. The magnitude of this internal strife is only heightened by the fact that, just next year, Americans will go to the polls to elect the nation’s 45th President. As campaign activity for 2016 heats up, one name keeps ringing out, unavoidably resounding with its own significance in communities across the nation: Bush.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are roughly 116,827,000 households in the U.S. Of these 116,827,000 households, four households include at least one living President (either current or former). Of these four households, only 1 household includes two Presidents, those being the two Bush men who have led this nation 46 percent of the time for the last 26 years. Even within the rarified pantheon of First Families, the Bushes are uniquely dominant. What’s more, the Bushes are on the verge of becoming the single most dominant family in American political history if Jeb were to win the White House for the GOP in 2016. No matter your political persuasion, you must admit that the Bushes are of unequal (potentially unprecedented) political influence in America today. Given their inordinate dominance, a bit of investigation into the Bush family’s background seems warranted.
Even a cursory glance over the history of the Bush family will lead one to conclude that the Bushes ooze with good fortune and privilege. For starters, the heart and soul of the family’s clout lies on that much-maligned yellow brick road, Wall Street, where the gleam of investment banks like Goldman Sachs shines like the allure of Emerald City. Perhaps the site of this nation’s most unabashed manifestations of privilege, Wall Street is a mecca of polished ambition and great expectations. At this legendary locale, George Herbert Walker, George H.W. Bush’s maternal grandfather, laid the seeds of his family’s prestige by becoming President of investment banking heavyweight W.A. Harriman & Co. in 1920. He then facilitated the merger of W.A. Harriman with the British bank Brown Bros. & Co. in 1931, creating the prestigious Brown Brothers Harriman, a Wall Street icon that is known today as America’s oldest and largest private bank. Going out on top, Walker retired from BBH in 1931 as the creator of one of Wall Street’s most influential firms.
Riding on the coattails of his father-in-law’s tremendous success, Prescott Bush (George H.W. Bush’s father) rose to the helm of recently-formed Brown Brothers Harriman in 1931, becoming one of BBH’s sixteen founding partners and leading BBH until he launched his successful Senate campaigns in the 1950s. By the way, of those sixteen BBH founders, eleven were Yale graduates and eight were members of Skull and Bones (both the 41st and 43rd Presidents are Yale graduates and Bonesmen). How much more saturated with privilege can a family history get? Just wait.
Powered by the ambition that motivated the uproarious investment banking successes of George Herbert Walker and Prescott, the Bush clan now counts among its ranks the founder of the New York Mets (George Herbert Walker, Jr.), the founder of the Ohio State University football program (Samuel P. Bush), the creator of Madison Square Garden as we know it (George Herbert Walker), one U.S. Senator (Prescott Bush), two Governors (Jeb and George), countless ambassadors, a surfeit of Yale graduates, and two Presidents. Born in a bank and now on the verge of possibly converting the Presidency into a hereditary position, the Bush dynasty is formidable.
At this point, I’m tempted to compare the Bush family to the Kennedys, seeing as the magnates of Hyannis Port are perhaps the only dynasty to overshadow the Bushes’ stardom in recent memory. I don’t find it coincidental at all that studying the origins of the Kennedys’ influence takes one straight back to where it all began for the Bushes: Wall Street. Overlapping a bit with the rise of George Herbert Walker, Kennedy family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, Sr. made a killing by shorting the stock market (betting on falling prices) in anticipation of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Kennedy then turned to investing in Hollywood, the liquor business, and commercial real estate before applying his financial acumen to the post of SEC Chairman, being appointed Ambassador to the U.K., and raising his four sons to do that which he did not: become President. All told, the Kennedy patriarch amassed the present-day equivalent of somewhere between $1.5 billion and $3.3 billion as a result of his savvy investing.
What do these family histories tell us? What is it about Wall Street that unlocks the potential of American dynasties? And what gives certain families, like the Bushes and Kennedys, extraordinary dynastic potential in the first place? For me, it comes down to contrasts.
I think that a select few of us strive to be unequal. Rather than working to achieve a more balanced society, rather than working to level the playing field for all, I think that a few of us have ambitions to stand above the crowd, not with it. For these people, it makes all the sense in the world to enter the incomparably intense world of Wall Street, thereby giving free rein to their ruthlessly competitive spirits in a culture where fighting for supremacy is demanded. For these people, life is lived first by taking, and then by giving back. For these people, the Prescott Bushes and Joe Kennedys of the world, self service precedes public service.
American society creates no disincentives for extremely ambitious people to be extremely ambitious. Quite the contrary, in fact. Our nation has an enduring history of being extremely supportive of Kennedys and Bushes running for public office. Furthermore, though the anti-Wall Street crusaders of our age like Elizabeth Warren and Occupy Wall St. protesters garner media attention, it’s likely that next year’s presidential election will yet again be a contest between two political dynasties, the Bushes and Clintons. Doesn’t this adulation of dynasties fundamentally undermine the meritocratic basis of American democracy? How independent and distinct are we from systems of oligarchic rule if we return to the polls, time and again, to substantiate the elitism of elite families? Furthermore, does President Obama’s recent rise to prominence represent a one-time exception to dynastic rule or does it signal a fundamental shift in the way that Americans choose their leaders?
There’s no denying it: the contrast in this nation between Wall Street. and Main Street is stark. At the very top of society, you have banking titans, like former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who go from supremacy in the financial sector to the highest public offices in the land. On the other hand you have the person, nameless and faceless, who clears Paulson’s garbage can of its daily contents. In a country where college students and members of the U.S. Senate alike protest Citibank’s influence on Dodd-Frank financial regulation, the financial services industry continues to power forth and represents $1.25 trillion of the U.S.’s gross domestic product. And, in a country that prides itself on being liberated from a system of hereditary titles and monarchy, the Bush family has the chance in 2016 to produce as many U.S. presidents as the House of Windsor has produced monarchs of England.
If we continually choose to propitiate aristocracy, aristocracy will reign. But really, do we even have a choice?
Lai is a member of the Class of 2015.