The Late, Great American WASP
The U.S. once had an unofficial but nonetheless genuine ruling class, drawn from what came to be known as the WASP establishment. Members of this establishment dominated politics, economics and education, but they do so no longer. The WASPocracy, as I think of it, lost its confidence and, with it, the power and interest to lead.
WASPs were a caste, closed off to all not born within it, with the possible exception of those who crashed the barriers by marrying in. WASP credentials came with lineage, and lineage—that is, proper birth—automatically brought connections to the right institutions. Yale, Princeton and Harvard were the great WASP universities, backed up by Choate, Groton, Andover, Exeter and other prep schools. WASPs tended to live in exclusive neighborhoods: on upper Park and Fifth Avenues in New York, on the Main Line in Philadelphia, the Back Bay in Boston, Lake Forest and Winnetka in Chicago.
WASP life, though, was chiefly found on the eastern seaboard. WASPs had their own social clubs and did business with a small number of select investment and legal firms, such as Brown Brothers Harriman and Sullivan & Cromwell. Many lived on inherited money, soundly invested.
That the Kennedys did their best to imitate WASP life is perhaps not surprising, for in their exclusion, the Irish may have felt the sting of envy for WASPocracy more than any others. The main literary chroniclers of WASP culture— F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, or John O'Hara—were Irish.
The last WASP president was George H.W. Bush, but there is reason to believe he wasn't entirely proud of being a WASP. At any rate, he certainly wasn't featuring it. When running for office he made every attempt to pass himself off as a Texan, declaring a passion for pork rinds and a love for the music of the Oak Ridge Boys. (His son George W. Bush, even though he can claim impeccable WASP lineage and went to the right schools, seems otherwise to have shed all WASPish coloration and become an authentic Texan, happily married to a perfectly middle-class librarian.)
The WASPs ruled the country, and for those who didn't much like the country or the directions in which they saw it tending, the WASPs were a great and easily identifiable enemy.
The last unashamed WASP to live in the White House was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he, with his penchant for the reform of American society, was considered by many a traitor to his social class. He is also likely to be the last to reside there. WASP culture, though it exists in pockets of private life—country clubs, neighborhoods, a few prep schools and law firms—is finished as a phenomenon of public significance.
Meritocracy in America starts (and often ends) in what are thought to be the best colleges and universities. On the meritocratic climb, one's mettle is first tested by getting into these institutions—no easy task in the contemporary overcrowded scramble for admission. Then, of course, one must do well within them.
Whether Republican or Democrat, left or right, the leading figures in U.S. public life today were good at school. Bill Clinton had Georgetown, Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar) and Yale Law School on his rÃ©sumÃ©; Barack Obama had Columbia and Harvard Law School. Their wives, respectively, had Wellesley and Yale Law School and Princeton and Harvard Law School.
But is the merit in our meritocracy genuine? Of the two strongest American presidents since 1950— Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan —the first didn't go to college at all, and the second went to Eureka College, a school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Eureka, Ill. The notion of Harry Truman as a Princeton man or Ronald Reagan as a Yalie somehow diminishes them both.
The WASPs' day is done. Such leadership as it provided isn't likely to be revived. Recalling it at its best is a reminder that the meritocracy that has followed it marks something less than clear progress. Rather the reverse.