“The rich are different from you and me,” novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald reputedly told his friend, Ernest Hemingway. Who is supposed to have responded, “Yeah, they have more money.” 1
Observing the behavior of California Republican Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman regarding revelations that she illegally employed a Hispanic housekeeper, it seems that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were both right. Meg Whitman is different from you and me: even absent her billion in the bank, she regularly exhibits the “vast carelessness” of great wealth that Scott Fitzgerald identified with such jarring precision in “The Great Gatsby.” It is true. Whitman fairly oozes that blinding self-assurance and untrammeled glow of entitlement. Hers is a psyche that puts her so weirdly out of touch with the push and shove of electoral democracy and, in this most recent case, threatens to transform a campaign boo-boo into the electoral death penalty.
What we witnessed last week is the product of the same mantle of privilege that has caused Meg Whitman to do and say things that would get the rest of us dismissed from our jobs, if not locked up in county jail. Ms. Whitman is, however, so used to buying her way out of trouble that she seems to be clueless that most of her fellow Californians don’t have access to that same get-out-of-jail-free-card luxury. It helps explain why Whitman’s initial response to her nannygate troubles was to blame Jerry Brown, Gloria Allred, the Democratic Party, her staff – literally everyone except herself. 2
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Whitman’s breathtaking lack of familiarity with the lives of we, the ordinary, pops up frequently enough to suggest an unsettling pattern. There was, for example, Whitman’s smacking around an e-Bay employee in 2007, when she felt she had been under-prepared by that staffer for a television interview. After buying her way out of that tantrum with a private mediation settlement of $200,0003, Whitman left it to her spokesperson Sarah Pompei to clean up the droppings. Not with an apology, mind you, but rather with a back-of-the-hand insouciance that dismissed the incident because, according to Ms. Pompei, “a verbal dispute in a high-pressure working environment isn’t out of the ordinary.”4
Earth to Sarah: It’s called “battery” and has a tendency to land us regular-type folks in anger management class. This same otherworldly arrogance was responsible for the Whitman campaign’s nearly suicidal exculpatory press release, weirdly titled, “In Case You Missed It: There Is No Meg Whitman-Housekeeper Scandal.” 5 Wanna bet?
It was this lack of social modulation that was similarly responsible for Whitman’s involvement with Goldman Sachs.6 These were the sinister plunderers who felt so at one with Meg that they put her on the board of an investment firm that, through sheer avarice and arrogance, nearly sank the American economy. Goldman advanced a golden step further, making Meg more millions by allowing her to invest early, often and secretly in Goldman-backed initial public offerings. In the superheated world of new-millennium, high-tech investing, they and she knew that share prices would double, triple, quadruple their value in the minutes and hours after going public.
It was an activity known on Wall Street as “spinning,” 7 and when, in 2005, Whitman’s spinning was revealed, annoyed e-Bay stockholders revolted, contending that what she had done was wrong, greedy and immoral. The perception that Whitman had put her own greed-fueled “spin” ahead of the interests of her company, its employees and shareholders also, not surprisingly, turned out to be illegal. A Delaware judge, in fact, ordered Meg and fellow “spinners” to return more than $3.3 million to settle activities that the court termed “a breach of fiduciary responsibility.” 8 For mere mortals, that’s a fancy term for “stealing.” As usual however, Whitman was able to waltz, or rather buy, her way out of trouble, announcing that she would give half the ill-gotten proceeds to the Boys & Girls Club of California, a transparent bit of lese majeste, and a common tactic of wealth caught with its knickers down.9
Another “spin” emanating from the Whitman campaign in late August was a website called “Truth for Nurses.” Among other assorted nastinesses, it denounces Rose An DeMoro, Executive Director of the California Nurses Association for having earned, according to the Whitman campaign, “five times more than the median salary of a nurse in the United States.” 10 Unremarkably, there was nothing in the site acknowledging that Meg Whitman’s $1,300,000,000 net-worth11 was something like 22,000 times the average nurses salary. As usual, in Whitman’s campaign the cascade of zeros trumped humanity and common sense.
Equally unsurprising, Whitman, who had based a large part of her campaign on getting tough with California’s illegal workers, was caught having employed an illegal worker in her home for over a decade. 12 Panicked, Whitman offered to take a lie-detector test, shifted blame onto her husband, and enlisted experts to testify that she had not actually broken any immigration laws. In perfect Gatsby fashion, Whitman missed entirely the fact that her eagerness to reapportion blame and willingness to sacrifice others was exactly the kind of cold-hearted carelessness that Fitzgerald pinned forever on those Gatsbyesque malefactors of great wealth.
Californians have a peculiar taste for the politically novel, but for seven years now, the state has been ruled, if not run, by a governor who commutes daily by jet to the capitol from his manse in Los Angeles.13 Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “boy in the bubble” routine has helped neither him nor the state. The question thus remains: Can we afford the ascension of another rich amateur, particularly one who evinces such disdain for the “little people” – especially if they stand in the way of her election to office. Ask Meg Whitman if she has a clue about what was truly devastating about this latest dust-up over hiring an illegal. She will likely freeze you with one of those haughty, wrothful “Queen Meg” looks and dismiss it and you out of hand.
But then this is also unsurprising. Because as Fitzgerald told us: “The rich are different from you and me.”