Tom and Daisy: When Wealth Won’t Help

This blog isn’t the first to compare F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with the Romney’s and their campaign, and it probably won’t be the final say either.  The New Republic launched the Romney/Gatsby game, inviting readers to guess which lines were from articles about the now infamous fundraiser in the Hamptons and which lines were from Fitzgerald’s classic American novel.   Comedy Central weighed in with its version compliments of Indecision 2012Krebcycle had a rather more serious take on the subject of the Hamptons and the Romneys.   Perhaps we should too?  Those not so fortunate to be members of the economic elite 0.1% might have learned most of what’s needed to know about former Governor Romney’s background in high school American Literature — from The Great Gatsby.

It may be time to revisit Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

Fitzgerald introduces us to Tom and Daisy in chapter one, not through a narrator who is in any way jealous of them, but via Nick Carraway who wants very much to be a successful bond seller, and who even purchases some books on the subject.  “… I decided to go East and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man.”  […] “I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint...”   Nick, like most of America, isn’t revolted by Tom’s wealth but by his character.

Wealth is more than merely fungible stuff in Fitzgerald’s novel; the source of Tom’s wealth is inherited, vast, and amoral.  Gatsby’s is earned, copious, and illegal.  Neither source bestows any inherent elevation in terms of morality.  Nor does the source provide any intrinsic good.  Buchanan’s wealth certainly doesn’t preclude his forays into extramarital affairs and his profoundly insensitive interactions with others.  The source of Gatsby’s treasure is as frivolous as that on which he spends it.  Philip Hensher’s insightful critique sets the background for Gatsby’s world succinctly:

“Its world reflects on bubbles and gaudy display, and people whose magnificent social position conceals an obscure history. You don’t have to look far to find Gatsby-like figures in London today. Would a modern-day Gatsby be a property developer, selling glass-walled penthouses for tens of millions? Or would a modern-day Gatsby be a Russian oligarch, with origins lost in some Siberian village and sinister staff patrolling the outer rim of the vast Home Counties estate? What the real modern-day equivalent of a Gatsby would be hardly matters.”

The source and amount of the wealth doesn’t necessarily corrupt, but it doesn’t mitigate personality defects either.   Great wealth won’t make Gatsby any less of a serial prevaricator and all around bootlegging crook, nor will it infuse Tom Buchanan with any personal connections beyond the restricted perimeters — the gated communities? — of social peers who matter.

Tom Buchanan’s propensity for extramarital affairs is a crucial plot point, but not necessarily a crucial matter for describing his “unbroken series of successful gestures.”   It doesn’t take long before Fitzgerald is describing this character as “supercilious,” with “arrogant eyes,” and a “cruel body.”  He has a “touch of paternal contempt,” and his actions shutting the rear windows with a boom produced this result: “…and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”  This is a person who sucks the air out of a room.

Willard Mitt Romney is certainly no Tom Buchanan, not by a long shot.  The parallels should not be over-drawn.   However, there is a sense as the 2012 campaign season drags along of an individual whose wealth cannot paper over the inability to connect at a personal level with the voters he seeks to influence.   Some samples:

“When an AP reporter asked Mitt if he follows NASCAR, Romney replied: “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.” [TheWeek]

“I’m not sure about these cookies. They don’t look like you made them,” Romney said to the woman next to him. “No, no. They came from the local 7/11 bakery, or whatever.” In fact they came from the local Bethel Bakery, whose owner later told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell he was offended by Romney’s remarks.”  [Salon]

“I met a guy yesterday, seven feet tall,” he said on Wednesday at Southwest Office Systems in Fort Worth. “Yeah, handsome, great big guy, seven feet tall! Name is Rick Miller—Portland, Oregon. And he started a business. Of course you know it was in basketball. But it wasn’t in basketball! I mean, I, figured he had to be in sport, but he wasn’t in sport.”  [MJ]

There’s nothing like a few more blunders like these to suck the air out of a campaign.   Unfortunately, his spouse didn’t help matters:

“Ann Romney defended her husband’s decision to not release any additional tax records during an interview on Thursday morning, saying that “we’ve given all you people need to know” about her family’s financial records.” [Mashable]

After all this it’s becoming very difficult to dispel the image of Tom and Daisy from the novel:

“His family were enormously wealthy — even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach — but now he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away; for instance he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.” […] “Why they came East I don’t know. They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

Thus, the Romneys fund raise among their own, wherever people speak of car elevators and are rich together.   In this rich environment of the entitled, the secluded, and the supercilious, come such infamous quotes as one from the Hamptons fund raiser:

A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.” [LATimes]

Reverting back to Nick Carraway’s description of the conversation at one of Gatsby’s parties:

“I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.”

Would a Carraway like person eavesdropping on the elite fund raising soirees amongst the Romney supporters be convinced the conversation was about selling something: bonds or derivatives or credit default swaps “agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced it was theirs for a few words in the right key.”

Once having secured the profits, what of those who “don’t know how the systems work?”  How much concern was evidenced for those outside the Golden Circle of people who have dressage horses and are rich together?

“What’s clear from a review of the public record during his management of the private-equity firm Bain Capital from 1985 to 1999 is that Romney was fabulously successful in generating high returns for its investors. He did so, in large part, through heavy use of tax-deductible debt, usually to finance outsized dividends for the firm’s partners and investors. When some of the investments went bad, workers and creditors felt most of the pain. Romney privatized the gains and socialized the losses.” [Bloomberg]

Are there parallels to Fitzgerald’s narration of Nick’s judgment on Tom and Daisy?

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed things up and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

Update:  And the careless campaign blunders along in Britain. Summarized here.

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