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THE CLASS Factor
Note to Rev. Jesse Jackson: Sorry, Jesse. You're wrong. Racism gets all the ink, but the heart of America's somewhat unfair social setup is class, not race. This fact might cut into your power base, but it's true. The question for this age in America is: What class are you?
Never thought about it? You should. Each one of us is born into a very specific economic and social class, regardless of color. Most of us remain in that class, for better or worse, until the day we die. The more observant among us can usually sum up a complete stranger's class background within minutes.
Politicians don't usually talk about class. It might open a dangerous door. Advertisers want us to believe we're all one class: the consuming class, equal as long as we keep spending. The rich want us to believe that anyone can make the quantum leap from bowling league to country club by just working a little harder. That's supposed to keep us motivated and quiet. But does class really matter? Would every blue-collar family be happier and more productive if a long-lost relative died and a trust fund flew in the window overnight?
No, but class is not just about money. It is about opportunity for your kids or dashed hopes, about education or minds that close down for good, about enduring values or materialism that comes out as greed or self-indulgence or complete disregard for others. It is the bottom line, in a way, for every problem I talk about in this book. Class attitudes can be involved in unfair tax laws, or government indifference about our terrible drug problem, or what kind of entertainment is available at the local movie house. Class plays a role in gun control laws that restrict personal freedom for the little guy and in casual enforcement of drunk driving laws.
As someone once said, "Class in America is like sex in Victorian times: People believe that if no one talks about it, it will just go away."
Whatever I have done or will do in this life, I'm working-class Irish American Bill O'Reilly. No one ever told me or my sister that we were pretty far down the social totem pole while we were growing up in 1960s America. We took for granted that it was normal to buy cars only when they were secondhand, that every family clipped coupons to save money, and that luncheon meats were the special of the day. The municipal pool in our town on Long Island, New York, was pretty seedy, and we took the Greyhound bus to Miami for our annual vacation, but since air travel and private pools simply did not exist in our world, we never thought we were missing anything. Ridiculous note: Deprivation works both ways, it seems. I'll never forget my astonishment reading that First Lady Jackie Kennedy learned about Green Stamps from a White House employee. This elegant, cultured upper-class young woman was delighted to find that these stamps, which were given out by retailers like supermarkets as a reward for shopping, could be redeemed for "free" electric blankets and the like. For a time, wealthy Mrs. Kennedy collected the stamps like mad.
My parents, who loved us both and wanted the best for us, believed that "the best" was playing it safe in life and not straying too far from the neighborhood. One of my grandfathers walked a police beat in Brooklyn, the other was a train conductor, my mother's mother was a telephone operator, and my uncle was a fireman. My sister became a nurse. I was expected to become a teacher or, if I got very lucky, a lawyer. My mother, not wanting me to become a nonconformist in the 1970s, would not rest until I wore a "leisure suit."
My father, who never made more than $35,000 a year while exhausting himself commuting daily from Levittown to New York City to work as currency accountant for an oil company, took for granted that college for his son meant one thing above all: employment security. He and my mother graduated from college, but they did not remember the experience as a life-altering event. Dad didn't want me rocking the boat or getting big ideas. He looked ready to throw up when I told him I was going to study abroad during my junior year.
"Why do you want to do that?" he snorted. "You could start on the football team!"
He didn't know, as I did by then, that the privileged classes saw the college years as an opportunity for learning a great many things that did not necessarily involve going home on weekends. Sure, some rich students I knew may have grandstanded about hangovers in Spain and sexy nights beside the canals in Venice, but they also learned from experience about different cultures and ways of thinking and saw firsthand some of the great achievements of European art and learning.
Of course, my father had never met such people of privilege, nor did he care to. He was proud of his spartan life with its fast foods, yearly three-week-long vacation, and four Robert Hall suits hanging in a small closet in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. All of his friends lived much the same way and were just as proud.
Most of my childhood friends stayed in the neighborhood, married each other, and now live fairly comfortable middle-class lives. Some of them are happy, some aren't. But few of them realize how much their lives have been defined for them, even laid out for them, by a class system that discourages most of us from moving up the social ladder, no matter how hard we work. Could some of them be happier or more productive if they had had the opportunity to go to graduate school to become architects or physicians or cancer researchers? Yes. It's not that one type of job is more important than another; it's that each of us should have the opportunity to use our own talents and follow our own dreams. A mind is a terrible thing to waste if you're held back by race or by gender. It is just as great a waste when you're held back by class. Right, Rev. Jackson?
A great scientist, J. B. S. Haldane, was asked the most important thing he had learned in his years of study. "That God must love beetles," he replied, "because he created so many different kinds of them."
American politicians, businesspeople, and media moguls have to love the middle and working classes because we exist in such huge numbers. If they didn't exactly create us, they do their best to keep us there. We make them prosperous. McDonald's, Burger King, and the like can't survive by supplying takeout only to the rich in Palm Beach, Malibu, and the Hamptons.
Without us, say good-bye to country music and rap, slasher flicks and Home Shopping Network, the Gap and SUVs, Jerry Springer and Oprah, malls and malt liquor, tattoo parlors and trailer parks, Myrtle Beach and Branson, Missouri, professional wrestling and the National Enquirer.
Talking Point: This country hums along economically because of the toil and the tastes of the working class . . . and the big-profit boys will do almost anything to keep it that way. Factor that into the price of your next Happy Meal.
In Barry Levinson's great movie Diner, the working-class heroes drive out into the country and spot a beautiful blonde riding her horse across the fields in the cool of the morning. Poised and confident, she chats briefly with them and rides on. "You ever get the feeling," asks one of the young men, "that there's something going on that we don't know about?"
Like most working-class kids, I first learned about the class system and its rigidity when I left home in Levittown for the wider world. As a freshman at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, a fine and affordable school, I was like most of my class: "ethnic" instead of old-line WASP, smack-dab in the middle of the middle class, and a little rough around the edges in social situations.
Vassar, at that time still a tony women-only college that boasted Jane Fonda as an alumna, was nearby, but Marist guys were not considered prizes at Vassar dances. The Ivy Leaguers up from Princeton or down from Cornell got the dates; we were treated like hired help. Our clever response to such snobbery? We overturned the punch bowl . . . thus proving their point! Even when our hormones weren't raging out of control, my college pals and I were far from being Ivy League material. None of my friends came from families that could afford the tuition there, nor could they benefit from the old-school-tie tradition of preference for the children of alumni. We certainly couldn't dress as well as a Princeton Tiger or hold up our end of a conversation about regattas.
Following the path that seemed destined for me, I became a high school teacher after graduation. There's no job more important, and few are more difficult. But I was ambitious for the larger stage and left after two years to go to Boston University for a master's degree in journalism. From the campus of this mostly middle-class school my friends and I could look across the Charles River at MIT and Harvard, observing that more than a stretch of dirty water separated us. Our degrees would not open as many doors as degrees earned over there. Our fathers did not have friends waiting to interview us for fast-track jobs as soon as we got our sheepskin. Many of my classmates set their sights lower than they should have, in my view, because they believed they were already behind in the race.
Years later, in an effort to bring all sorts of people together in a creative mix, Harvard's John Kennedy School of Government accepted me for postgraduate study when I was in the middle of my broadcasting career. Suddenly Bill O'Reilly was in a world where no new friend was named Vinny, Stevie, or Serge, and there were no girls called Amber, Tiffany, or Jennifer. Many of my new classmates had three names, and they expected to hear all three of them: Stephen Tristen Copen, Robin Braden Crosfield. It was the first time I actually knew people who never had to think about money. Their clothing was understated but top-quality, their cars were European and well tuned, and their rooms hinted of exotic vaca-tions and sprawling family properties. Winter skiing in Grindelwald? A must. I learned that a "cottage" could be a twenty-two-room mansion on a northeastern beach or a "camp" a forty-acre property on a lake in the Adirondacks with houses and outbuildings more than a century old.
My classmates were impeccably polite and welcoming, by the way. We might go out together to a restaurant down the way for Thai food. That was fun, even when I was the only one who didn't know how to order my meal in Thai. Class from the past: When President Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by a madman's bullet, he put on a brave front to calm the Ameri-can public. Traveling west to his Santa Barbara ranch to recuperate, he stopped to rest in Chicago and made a brief statement. As he prepared to speak, local officials were horrified by his deep wheezing and weak voice. But when he stepped up to the mike, Reagan spoke strongly, taking a slight breath between every few words to keep his voice steady. It was an actor's trick, but it was also a class act in a time of national concern.
I studied my Harvard classmates more intently than my political courses at the Kennedy school. I had a nice enough tuxedo, I thought, but a friend might have several. Oh, and it's déclassé to say "tuxedo" or "tux," old boy-it's "evening clothes" or "formal wear." Because the point was not really the material things themselves: It was having the right attitude, which meant acting a certain way and using the terms and accents of the elite. One rule was not to be "pretentious." A neighbor in Levittown might save up money and take pride in new drapes. No class. The upper classes refer to "curtains," not "drapes," "rugs," not "carpets," and so forth. The expensive cars and clothing were never flashy, never too colorful, never ornamented.
Generally speaking, my Harvard classmates remained outwardly calm in all situations. Everything was under control. No one "acted out." No swearing or arm waving or bear hugs. No panic at exam time. Things were expected to go well. They always had. The Harvard campus was like a giant theme park-perhaps Privilege World-where life worked out happily ever after and everyone's clothes fit perfectly.
Ridiculous note: Well-fitting clothes, fine cars, and piles of money don't necessarily add up to "class." The host of lavish parties at his estate in the Hamptons, rap star and recording entrepreneur Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs was once a working-class kid from the New York City area. Martha Stewart, the self-made mistress of good taste, is a neighbor and frequent guest, and so are some of the most talked-about celebrities in the Hamptons and Hollywood. But Mr. Combs was recently indicted for three separate gun-related charges, including bribery. Too bad. These things "just aren't done," Mr. Combs. Don't know if we'll be stopping by next summer. Meanwhile, a part of the Harvard world was studying me.
To my surprise, many of the faculty and students had seen me anchoring Inside Edition, a nationally broadcast infotainment TV show that might delve into such politically significant subjects as Madonna's decision to have a baby. Harvard people watch this kind of program? Well, they found it amusing.
That's fair. The wealthy and privileged deserve some comic relief: Glimpses of jaded celebrities and stories about bizarre occurrences among the commonfolk can fascinate people who rarely associate with working stiffs. The Harvardites weren't consciously acting superior; in fact, they were very nice people for the most part, and many were studying politics so that they could help others. But they were generally clueless about the lives, the thoughts, and the dreams of working-class Americans. Such subjects do not come up over the macaroons and out-of-season raspberries at the club. Ridiculous note: Maybe it's not always easy for the upper classes. When George Herbert Walker Bush ran for president in 1988, a Texas politician ridiculed him for "being born on third base and thinking he hit a triple." In 2000 a computer whiz named Zack Exley founded a website that wickedly made fun of the presidential campaign website of George W. Bush. He supported this venture, in part, by selling such bumper stickers as "Don't Blame Dubya . . . He's a Victim of Social Promotion." (Politics is serious, but don't take it too seriously. In the interest of bipartisanship, let me say that the bumper sticker of the year reads: "Vote for Nixon in 2000 . . . He's not as stiff as Gore!")
Ridiculous note: One thing I didn't have to learn at Harvard is that classy rich people don't cheat the help. "Only vulgar people insult their servants," a Boston grande dame said once. (Are you listening, Leona Helmsley?) I already had seen bad behavior over and again in the world of broadcasting. For example, Kirstie Alley, star of the TV sitcom Veronica's Closet, brought new meaning to the word "gratitude." To anyone who would listen she announced that she wanted to share the rewards of a successful season with her hardworking staff. Somehow, money seemed too vulgar to the multimillionaire Kirstie. So she gave each of her lucky minions a live canary. In a way, one could say, she flipped all her coworkers the bird.
Viewer time-out: "O'Reilly, I don't know if you're a conservative or a liberal, but you come off as one of the most obnoxious, self-righteous journalists I have ever seen. I am forced to sit there in revulsion and fascination at what you say. I can't take my eyes off someone so completely full of himself." (Scott M., Kerrville, Texas)
Not really being too full of myself, I think, I'm going to take a break now from my personal odyssey from Levittown to Harvard and eventually to The O'Reilly Factor, a national TV program where I get to spout my opinions every night. That journey has been strange, treacherous, and very enlightening, but I'll return to it later.
I've mentioned my beginnings here to underscore the point of this opening chapter: The way you look, sound, carry yourself, dress, and even smile is very, very important to your life and career in today's America. The system is cleverly designed so that a lucky few will get rich and grab power, and those people are an even smaller group than the ones who inherit money and power generation after generation. Barring an alien invasion from outer space, the president elected in November 2000 will be a "legacy," as the term goes in fraternity life. Both Gore and Bush are privileged heirs of established political families.
If you aren't interested in competing for the richest prizes yourself, why should you care? Because the goals and attitudes of the establishment affect the lives of everyone in the nation. Sure, the rich and powerful will encourage you to "be all that you can be"-but only in the army! With its low pay and lousy housing (thanks to the indifference of the politicians at the top of American government), the Pentagon needs all the workingclass soldiers it can get.
Bulletin: America is not supposed to have a class system, but it does. Even if the rules aren't as rigid or oppressive as in India or Britain or Spain, class issues influence your life every day, and you ought to think about it. Ridiculous note: As we all know, our embarrassing president sold nights in the historic Lincoln Bedroom to anyone who would cough up soft money for his reelection in 1996. Aside from the legalities of this quid pro quo, it was extremely bad taste. I guess living in the elegant White House doesn't necessarily teach you social niceties. Compare the behavior of his good friends the Kennedys of Hyannis, Massachusetts: In April 1999 they offered a weekend in their famous family compound to anyone who contributed $100,000 to the Democratic National Party. But even these wealthy contributors were expected to remember their proper place in society as "not quite our sort." They would not be allowed to stay overnight in the compound, although the Kennedy staff would graciously find them a hotel nearby.
Backup Stats: There are about 280 million Americans now, but less than 150,000 of us earned more than a million dollars in 1997 (the most recent statistics available). That's the story from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit organization that specializes in tax analysis. Here's another way of looking at it: The 2.7 million richest Americans have as much cash on hand as the 100 million of their fellow citizens at the bottom of the ladder.
A tiny, exclusionary group with loads of money rules America financially. Yes, as the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me. And I say they want it to stay that way. I know it, you know it, and they know it!
This just in: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." -President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863
But isn't the business, political, and social establishment what capitalism is all about? Communist leaders Lenin and Stalin didn't like it, and neither did Mao. Castro says he can't stand it, either, but he makes an exception for himself: His estimated worth is more than $300 million. Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others. Maybe we can say the same about capitalism. For all of its faults, it gives most hardworking people a chance to improve themselves economically, even as the deck is stacked in favor of the privileged few.
Ridiculous note: Polo and yacht races may be the most upscale of sports activities, but golf still betrays its origins among the wealthy, leisured classes. According to Sports Illustrated, PGA tour player Notah Begay went behind bars in February 2000 after his second drunk driving conviction in a five-year period. Begay, who won two PGA events in 1999 and earned $250,000 in the first two months of the twenty-first century, had a light enough sentence to begin with: a total of seven days in a detention center in New Mexico. But authorities evidently felt that having to sleep there was punishment enough for endangering other people's lives by drinking and driving. He was allowed "off campus" every day to train at his usual gym, have lunch at his house, practice golf all afternoon, eat dinner at the clubhouse, and then have his chauffeur return him to the detention center. That's twelve hours a day on the loose out of the slammer while "serving time."
Here are the choices most of us face in such a system: Get bitter or get busy. When you understand the game, you can take charge of how you want to live. You can choose the life that makes the most sense for you-in Levittown or in the rat race or in the spotlight or in a small town in the West-only when you find out what your options really are.
And if you don't believe class is important in your life, you might want to ask yourselves some questions like these:
• Did my spouse or I turn down a chance for another job because of the fear of "not fitting in"?
• Did someone in my family not stand up for himself or a family member after some injustice because he didn't feel he was good enough?
• Do I miss out on some social or sports activity I like because I'm afraid everyone else involved in it dresses better or has more income?
• Have I discouraged my children from chasing an ambitious goal because I'm afraid they won't be happy or comfortable in an upper-class situation?
• Do I refuse to learn something-Alpine skiing, computer skills, wine collecting, field hockey-because I think that other people are already way ahead of me and I would be acting "above my station"?
Get the point? Good.