Jake DeSantis, a 40-year-old commodities trader at AIG, was an unlikely face of Wall Street greed. Stocky and clean cut, with an abiding moral streak, he’d worked summers for a bricklayer in the shadow of shuttered steel mills outside Pittsburgh; he was valedictorian of his high-school class and attended college at MIT.
You see, it doesn’t matter if he’s spoiled and greedy now, because he laid bricks over the summer when he was a teen-ager? Don’t you elitists get this?
It’s striking how much we now see the idea that a working-class childhood justifies an adulthood of careerist whoring. Somerby’s been all over this for years, but I think the most blatant example I’ve ever seen is this bit from a chat with Howard Kurtz recently:
Reader: Much of the scalding tone many of your writers on these chats are subjected to from readers is based on this premise. We know that the Post, the Times, the networks are working to support the establishment at all cost. (In Broder’s famous and haughty dismissal of Bill Clinton “this is not his town”). But the problem is that you guys don’t like to portray yourselves as defenders of the establishment. You are the “little guy.” No you are not. Be honest with your audience.
Howard Kurtz: Talk about sweeping generalizations! Evan Thomas declares himself part of the establishment and suddenly every member of the major newspapers and networks are pillars of that establishment as well?
That would be news to Brian Williams, who was a volunteer fireman as a young man and washed out in his first job at a tiny Kansas station. And news to me, a guy who went to a state university. And news to Katie Couric, who started out on the University of Virginia’s student paper and washed out in her first national job, at CNN. And news to longtime Post editor Len Downie, who went to Ohio State University and started here as an intern. And also news to me, a kid from Brooklyn who never met a professional journalist until my junior year at a state university.
If you want to say these are big corporations, if you want to criticize what they do, be my guest. But let’s not assume that everyone in the business grew up in the bosom of the establishment.
An even more amazing example is George Bush’s claim (from a 2000 Nick Lemann piece that’s subscription only) that the biggest difference between him and Al Gore is that Bush went to San Jacinto Junior High.
How did this idea of humble, or humbler, beginnings become so important? It’s worth noting that it’s Randian as well — her heroes usually come from the working class, even if they spend their adult lives spitting on it.
Update. I know that the Horatio Alger stuff has always been really big in stories about business people, but when did it cross over into being so important for journalists and politicians? I mean, I get the idea of “hungry kid” makes good, but when did it become a marker of solid journalistic common sense. That’s what I really don’t get.