Other readers of The Times of Jan. 27 were doubtless as fascinated as your correspondent by Landon Thomas Jr.’s account of the plans for a party to be held on Feb. 13 to celebrate the 60th birthday of private-equity pasha Steve Schwarzman. Fascinated, may I say, on several counts.
For someone my age, who knew a time when businessmen moved mountains to keep their private lives and personal pleasures out of the newspapers, this sort of thing, however risible its entertainment value, strikes one as not altogether salutary. These days, the line between one’s business life and one’s personal life has been all but erased, and any remaining demarcation is a matter between an individual and his tax accountant. Does a one-night orgy of self-promotion for several hundred “friends” qualify as a business deduction? Don’t ask me, ask H&R Block.
Much more interesting to me was the news that—rather in the manner of Lars Porsena dispatching his messengers to the corners of empire to summon his array—“a staffer, equipped with a video camera, has paid a visit to the offices of many of the invitees to film suitable tributes and roasts.” This is the sort of information most people would cringe to have made public about themselves, especially since such a compendium will presumably include a heartfelt tribute from Henry Kissinger, the Morey Amsterdam of personal video encomiasts. And one might well reserve a second cringe for the report that “A large book has been circulated in which they have recorded funny stories and remembrances.” Nothing like a good grovel from one’s guests, I always say; to an occasion like this, it’s what bubbles are to champagne.
Although I must confess that the cats and I haven’t exactly been sitting around in Dumbo waiting for the doorbell’s buzz to announce the arrival of the Schwarzman Celebratory Video Team, I do admit to having devoted the odd second to pondering what form my tribute or roast might take.
Certainly, just having gotten through threescore years deserves a tip of the topper, and so, I suppose, does the achievement of having amassed in that span enough of the folding green to be described in the press as “a billionaire several times over.”
Now what else is there? Well, there are all those lavish residences, including Palm Beach and Water Mill “tear-downs” priced in the tens of millions. Given the way we live now, I suppose this counts as some kind of cultural accomplishment. Are there other feats of cultural heroism or advancement one can point to? Occasions risen to, such as, oh … well, just to give you a might-have-been: Were yours truly a billionaire several times over who found himself sitting at an NYPL board meeting deliberating the de-accession of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, most iconic of all New York paintings, I think I would have played Horatius (to continue the Macaulay trope opened up above) and cried out, “No! I’ll put up $10 million to keep the picture here—who will stand with me?”, and cast a defiant gimlet gaze around the table, shaming my fellows into ponying up the remainder. Which is pretty much what happened in Philadelphia with Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. But I guess you don’t get to be a b/s/t/o by flinging good money after art when you can buy people much more cheaply.
So, basically, what’s being celebrated is the making of a large amount of money. Which is O.K.: It’s the spirit of the age. What the Times account of the Schwarzman party characterizes as the social “coronation” of an individual, I see in a larger context: as apotheosis and incarnation of the times, of what I call George W. Bush’s “guns and foie gras” economy, which has replaced what used to be call “guns and butter.”
In the latter, as directed in the mid-60’s by Mr. Bush’s fellow Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, an ill-advised, hugely costly military adventure was conducted overseas at the same time that the Public Capital was subjected to massive drains for the benefit of this Great Republic’s less-advantaged denizens. Today, we have another dubious, failing military expedition in a part of the world of which we seem to have zero cultural grasp, but this time the concurrent raid on the Public Capital has been largely for the benefit of our most-advantaged fellows (and their parasites in the securitization/globalization game). Goose liver has replaced butter (or what, in truth, turned out to be closer to margarine). So far, it has worked—but the problem with capitalism is that what’s most effective economically can be most dangerous politically. Hence the need for discretion at the top.
WELL, SO IT GOES. I have no sour grapes. Would I wish to be invited? Not really. I always say that ostentatiously to call attention to your privileges invites someone out there to do something to ruin your delight in them. It will not be lost on a present-day Guy Fawkes that a few hundred kilos of Semtex deployed in the armory basement might give a not-altogether-intended edge to the Schwarzman crowning. Back when my blood ran hot and fantasies of retribution fueled my writerly imagination, I even wrote a thriller (Baker’s Dozen) in which precisely this sort of ego trip is targeted for attack. Such thoughts no longer engage me (except now and then, when I read about the goings-on at the Waverly Inn or Michael’s), but, as they say, better safe than sorry.
And there’s this to think about. Frankly, if I were running Al Qaeda and wanted to bring down the West, I’d leave this lot up to their present fun and games. They’re well along in getting the job done without any help from Islam. I wonder if, maybe, that’s what we ought to be celebrating.