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Important People

These are the times that try men’s resumés. Maybe it is the swift emergence of Washington as the capital of status anxiety, in the transition’s tilting of egos and elbows; or the restoration to prestige of “the best and the brightest,” all shadows gone, and the return to power of liberal credentialism; or the fact that Congress could find $700 billion when the mandarins of New York needed it but could not find $14 billion when the workers of Detroit needed it—whatever it is, I am tiring of very important people. I never saw the owl of Minerva fly through Harvard Yard. In a society as wounded as our own, there is something repellent about the assertions of elitism. Its most awful expression, of course, is the acquiescence of almost everybody in the dynastic ambitions of the Kennedys. I can almost not imagine a more obvious mutilation of the meritocratic ideal than the appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the United State Senate. A Senate seat is a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing. But of course it will not be given away for nothing: the princess and her family will be delighted to pay for it. Ever since this democratic indignity was broached, the really smart talking point has been that she has the money for her eventual campaigns. In Michael Bloomberg’s city, this is all you need to know. After all, the next mayoralty of New York will have been decided over breakfast by two billionaires who have their respective uses for term limits and the strategic manipulation of them. Bloomberg appears to regard term limits as an unwarranted governmental interference in a free market: no sooner did he announce that he would prefer not to relinquish his rule than he let it be known that he will spend $80 million on his campaign. If his record in office is so sterling, why does he have to buy it back? More important, when will the authority in American life of the oligarchy of Manhattan finally come to an end? The wantonness of their capitalism was widespread and systematic, and it injured millions of lives. A society may be measured by whom it admires. No class of Americans has done more to damage America than the financial class. A generalization is an ugly thing, but every day’s newspaper refreshes my impression that the titans, the insiders, the big players, the boldfacers, the movers and the shakers—the hoshover menschen, as we say where I come from—have been, many of them, fools or thieves.

I’m hollering, I know. But recently I have been spending some of my hours teaching little schoolchildren and helping a frail and beloved woman with her food, and I have been reminded of all the life that flows past all the fanciness. There are so many worlds in the world.

A friend of mine is slowly dying on Park Avenue—“the gates are closing,” he declared the other day—and it makes Park Avenue look stupid. Its insulation does not work. It holds back the imagination of misfortune, which diminishes the scope of natural sympathy—so that, say, Caroline Kennedy is only now discovering Syracuse—and inculcates the illusion that fate has an A-list. The result can be quite poignant. In The Year of Magical Thinking, the document of a struggle between the sense of mortality and the sense of privilege, Joan Didion recorded her humbling discovery, at the bedside of her dying daughter, that even "the very successful" are helpless before their finitude. "They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at Justice or State. . . . I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris.” Her mother was lucky in her daughter, but the belief in social class must never be allowed to reach so deeply into one’s understanding of life. In these days of dread I prefer to linger over all the people who have never been able to facilitate a favor. The media that used to be fascinated by the pleasures of the rich is now fascinated by the pains of the rich, but the fascination is the same, and it contributed to the bubble that burst in all our faces, and it interferes now with what we really need to know. When I read the papers I skip guiltlessly over the desperate sales of jewels and summer homes and go straight to the accounts of unglamorous desperation, of ordinary people helping each other because otherwise they would be even more powerless than they are. In the reports on the villainous Madoff, I am not especially moved by the tribulations of Palm Beach. In the pieces on bailout and stimulus I search for the euphemism for common decency known as “foreclosure mitigation.” Often I search for it in vain. This crisis has not yet made a single community out of this country.

And in this solidarity with the demos, a moment of silence. Bettie Page, goddess of the demotic-erotic, has died. She was America’s retort to Baudelaire, giggling through sin, twinkling in depravity, emancipating darkness from torment: the jollies, indeed. Above the neck, day; below the neck, night: she broke new ground in fantasy with her paradoxical ideal of play. Was objectification ever less dehumanizing? The power of her image owed much to the commonness of its settings—the cheap, tattered furniture in the Klaws' "studio," the industrial siding on the walls barely disguised by the shabby drapes, was an invitation to transformation. When the external resources are small, the internal resources must be large. And Bettie Page had more integrity than any celebrity of our time, because she walked away from it. If, in our madly outer-directed and Facebooked society, obscurity is the true virginity, then she was, ropes and garters and all, a good girl. Among the delicacies in my library, alongside Sefer Hasidim, Bologna 1538, first edition, Salman Schocken’s copy, and the Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, London 1920, first edition, foreword by Walter de la Mare, is Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, by Karen Essex and James L. Swanson, Los Angeles 1996, first edition, inscribed by its subject. Here is her signature:

A ripening, curvaceous, disciplined hand; a happy American hand; the hand of an important person.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

By Leon Wieseltier