Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

The Classless Society

One day when I was very small — it was before the war — I was seated next to my mother as we drove through Georgetown. Passing a scabrous stone house with a shabby yard, she pointed to it and said, “I bet you high-class people live there. You can always tell because they don’t put on. They don’t have to.”

I did not understand and promptly forgot the incident until, years later, I read The Late George Apley and came to the scene where a middle-class visitor assumes that the Apleys are broke because their Aubusson rugs are threadbare and their linen tablecloths are darned. In that moment my long-buried memory of the Georgetown drive rose up in my mind in perfect precise detail as if it had just happened. Now I knew exactly what my mother had meant, though I wondered how she had. We didn’t know any high-class people, and she certainly had never read The Late George Apley, nor, as far as I knew, any other book. Neither was she one for discursive reflection and speculation. Hypotheses irritated her, were guaranteed to make her snap, “Suppose one thing, suppose another! Suppose a jackass was your brother!” Her observation about class did not come to her through the conventional cerebral procedure. She didn’t actually think it out; it was more like picking up a scent: She had good instincts.

The Georgetown Moment is my first memory, and thus, according to the head-shrinkers, was a major influence in shaping my personality and temperament. That it was also an unusually early memory and remained buried for so long makes it even more likely that it has turned into my Rosebud, which probably explains why I spent Inauguration Day, New Administration Week, and Caroline Kennedy’s bumbling pursuit of Hillary’s Senate seat in a state of sodden despair muttering, “I want my mother.”

The United States — of America, that is, as BHO carefully specifies — is embarked on an eternal search for class. So am I, but I believe in leveling up, not down. I am the Wrong-Way Corrigan of democracy, which is why I get off on things like the story about the King of Spain whose lisp caused him to pronounce “ez” as “eth.” So enthusiastically did his subjects imitate him that his speech defect grew into the linguistic perfection of aristocratic form known as Castilian Spanish.

#page# Never let it be said that Americans don’t imitate our betters too. BHO said “shovel ready” and now the talking heads are saying it every chance they get, guaranteeing that it will spread through the land until it becomes the bee in every hardhat and the forklift in every tongue. The same thing happened in the ’80s when the accolade of choice was “street smart.” Describing a quality found in underprivileged survivors of the school of hard knocks, it swelled and groaned through media overuse until it was applied indiscriminately to Ivy League deans, Rhodes scholars running for president, boardroom poo-bahs, and graduates of Choate.

Our biggest misconception about class is that it can be combined with friendliness that never sleeps, smiles that never fade, and unconditional love. This is why Nancy Pelosi, who looks like Tosca and could have the clout of a Medici, will go down in history as the greatest footnote of all time. The identifying characteristics of class still suggest the 18th century: archness, icy politeness, dry detachment — the whole crisp panoply of unassailable self-assurance that would bomb on television because class is defined by what it refuses to accept and Americans reject anything less than total acceptance.

We want a person with class to be “just like me,” and during the Week That Was we got our wish. The fallen archness of Caroline Kennedy demolished the Algonquin’s proud history of whiplash ripostes and plunked us all down at the Motel 6 Square Table. Never has it been more painfully obvious that money and celebrity have nothing to do with class. Caroline Kennedy is a pathetic dud; dull, boring, monotonal, tongue-tied, with a stoop-shouldered, lumbering walk like that of someone pushing a plow.

Interestingly, she made the media mad enough to run loops of her “y’know”s, but they were mad for the wrong reason: She proved that Camelot is not as classy as they want it to be. It certainly isn’t. In their biography of the Kennedy family, Collier and Horowitz relate that as Joe Kennedy Jr. climbed into his plane for his fatal mission, another pilot asked him, “Is your insurance paid up?” and Joe replied, “Nobody in my family needs insurance.”

Threatened by class per se, we substitute the “class act,” a one-time triumph by someone who may or may not be classy but who is hailed as the next-best thing: a hero. We got one just in time for the inauguration and he almost bumped BHO off the news. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s perfect landing in the Hudson River triggered the hysteria-tinged joy that pours out of us whenever someone admirable comes along. What we actually are looking for is what Jefferson called “natural aristocracy,” but we recoil from its definition. It refers to an X Factor, something you either have or you don’t, something schools can’t teach and governments can’t dole out, like an ear for music. Either you’re born with it or you’re not, and so Americans, haunted by “created equal,” won’t touch it with a barge pole.

There is no way out of our class problem as long as we cloud the issue with fame and money. We will never get it right but we’ll keep trying, even if it’s just a little George Apley in the night. Stand by for a Girls Gone Wild bonanza in a rug store called “The Barest Threads” and a pitch by everybody’s favorite infomercial guy: “Billy Mays here for Darn It! The faux darning kit that gives you a touch of class!”

In one brief shining moment, my mother made me a conservative elitist. Too bad we can’t give her the wool so she could make some more.

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