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Laurence Leamer

Laurence Leamer

Posted: December 3, 2008 12:19 PM

The Wages of Wealth


For the first time since the Thirties, the moment of truth is arriving for the wealthy in America. During the New Deal, as FDR saved the capitalistic system that had brought the economic elite such bounty, many of the ultra rich berated the president as a traitor to his class. They sat in their clubs and sneered at the reformers and were largely bystanders to the great American drama of their time.

I've been living in Palm Beach for the past decade and a half gathering information for my forthcoming book, Madness Under the Royal Palms, and I say with immense sadness that I think history is about to repeat itself. There is inchoate anger, great fear, and a willful distancing from the great new American drama that is about to begin in Washington.

I had lunch with one of the leading socialites the day after the election. "That black tar baby won," she said spitting out the words as if she had bitten into something foul. "And if he's killed the problem is that the one who would take over next is just as bad." I was stunned that this elegant, well brought up lady should say such things, but it was sentiment repeated any number of times in the next few days.

That weekend I went to a cocktail party given for major Obama supporters on the island by Cynthia Friedman, a prominent Democratic fundraisers. I had talked to any number of people when a man I had never met before came up to me and started spouting off. He was one of a number of mixed couple at the event where one spouse was for Obama the other for McCain. In this case, he had been as fervent a McCain supporter as his wife and been for Obama. He was a member of the restricted Everglades Club and he talked about a lunch he had there that day. "We've kept the Jews out of the club and now we've got a N------ in the White House." That was the first time in thirty years I heard the "N" word.

The problem here is not just politics. It's that even when these people think they are making these magnificent charitable contributions, many of these causes have nothing to do with the crucial issues and problems facing our nation and world. It's not chic to think about poverty, homelessness, AIDS, and other unseemly matters. I volunteer once a week at The Lord's Place, a marvelous organization working with the homeless in Palm Beach County. It's about a two-mile drive from my home but there is only one other person from the island of Palm Beach who volunteers. It's considered terrible gauche and rather unseemly.

I attended a luncheon at the private Club Colette in Palm Beach a few days ago for feral cats. There are about 400 of these wild animals on the island and they are treated better than the 4,000 homeless across the bridge. The cats get fed regularly and are watched over by a number of dedicated society ladies. It costs several hundred thousand dollars a year to treat these cats in the fashion in which they are accustomed, whereas last year The Lord's Place raised only $40,000 in Palm Beach.

During the luncheon one wealthy matron got up to make her testimonial. "I have 18,000 acres in the Adirondacks," she said. "I'll fly some of these cats up there in my private jet." I kept thinking about the homeless families in West Palm Beach sleeping in cars. It is stunning to me how far out of the crucial concerns of our country so many of these people are. There is desperate need across the Inland Waterway, but that is another world, and most of these people intend to keep it that way. It's a story writ large in wealthy enclaves across America.