Sunday, January 09, 2005

Entrepreneurs Then and Now

Two weeks ago I saw The Aviator. As a film it dragged somewhat during the last hour, and it suffered from the dreadful miscasting of Cate Blanchett, who was made up to look about 55 at a time when Katharine Hepburn was not yet 40, and looked younger. But its historical accuracy seemed to me to be far above average, and Howard Hughes, who surely had an extraordinary life, got me thinking about the figure of the heroic businessman and how few such people my own generation has manged to produce.
Citizen Kane is usually listed as the greatest of all American films, and it has certainly been one of the most influential. Sooner or later most great directors try to emulate it, as Oliver Stone did, with considerable success, in Nixon, and Martin Scorsese has now done with Hughes. All told the tragic story of a rise and fall. Kane/Hearst, like Hughes, was born to money: Nixon truly had to struggle from the lower middle class on up. All three men were personally obsessive and eccentric; two (Hearst and Hughes) had colorful love lives; and in each case, the filmmaker gave a major psychological role to the protagonist's mother. Kane's mother shaped his life by sending him away at a tender age; Nixon's established a standard of perfection and emotional self-denial that no child could ever attain; and Hughes', Scorsese strongly suggests, sexually abused him. (Scorsese's portrait is particularly interesting not only because of the negative portrayals of women in most of his movies, but because he has been married five times himself.) And while each of these men sought public acclaim in youth and middle age, all three of them spent their declining years in almost complete isolation.
Yet through it all, all three of them left an enduring mark on American life. Hearst transformed journalism (not for the better, it must be said)
and built the first multi-media empire. Nixon had an extraordinary political career his foreign policies had a lasting impact, and his fall nobly epitomized American devotion to the rule of law. Hughes built newer, bigger and better airlines, and pioneered the development of continental and transcontinental aviation. Indeed, some of the best scenes in The Aviator showed Hughes at work--constantly pushing his subordinates to do the impossible, but usually in pursuit of a bold, brilliant and fundamentally sound concept, such as designing new rivets that would not increase air resistance or filming a First World War aerial dogfight realistically. One felt the presence of a genius who could really identify a possible breakthrough and push a large team of subordinates to achieve it. Some projects inevitably failed, but many succeeded.
The Boom generation is now entering its early sixties--and who have we produced who could match any of these three? Bill Gates and Steven Jobs have certainly had a comparable impact, although Gates, oddly, has shown no interest in creating a compelling public persona. Yet the tycoon who has--Donald Trump, who has combined a boom-and-bust real estate career with a self-promotion campaign that has now reached its apogee on reality TV--really does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, it seems to me, with either Hearst or Hughes. In two seasons of The Apprentice (which, I must admit, I have almost never missed), he has never given me the impression of a truly brilliant or commanding intelligence. While he browbeats his subordinates like Hughes or Kane, they did so in pursuit of great goals. Trump seems concerned only to show that his word is law and he reserves the right to act arbitrarily. And he has come to love the disgraceful tactic of setting his subordinates against one another. This may be because his producer Mark Burnett likes it, but if so, that only confirms that Trump, unlike any really great leader, does not at bottom trust his own judgment. His gambling casinos are failing but his public recognition has never been higher--and that, alas, is only too characteristic of his generation as a whole.
Boomers grew up hearing that they were the greatest children of the greatest country that had ever existed. Sadly, the United States from 1946 through 1964--the years in which the Boom generation, properly defined, was first becomign aware of the world around it--was, with all its faults, perhaps the most just modern society that had yet been created, and seemed to be heading pretty consistently in the right direction. But it did not, inevitably, meet the standards of perfection it claimed for itself, and beginning in 1965 the Boom generation began seizing upon its remaining flaws (encouraged, to be sure, by our parents' great mistake, the Vietnam War), and tearing down their achievements. And now, as a Boomer Administration tries to wipe out the whole legacy of the New Deal once and for all, those of us with cooler heads wonder why it can be so important to the Bush Administration to destroy the principles of domestic and foreign policy under which they have lived their whole lives. The answer, at bottom, I fear, is that our parents believed in them. Unfortunately, on that point our parents were right.
Boomers, on the whole, want to be valued for what they are rather than what they have done. That is why identity politics, rather than achievement, dominate present-day academia--the first institution Boomers managed to transform. That is why Boomer businessmen feel no obligation to anyone but themselves. That is how George Bush managed to run a successful re-election campaign despite a record of unremitting disaster at home and abroad. His supporters voted for the man, not his record--and John Kerry, sadly, tried to beat him in the same way. That's why Donald Trump remains a national figure of some note without having ever done anything but build garish buildings and unsuccessful casinos.
And all the while, Boomers have clung to another fantasy we inherited from our parents--that history moves ever forward, and that nothing we might do could turn us on to the wrong path. As the Greeks recognized, a contrary paradox moves history. Greatness leads to hubris and to destruction; but on the other hand, defeat and chaos provide the chance for real greatness to emerge once again. A few Boomers have managed to keep their heads, and some may still step foward, five or ten years from now, when ideological conservative rule has led the nation to the brink of collapse. So it was in 1861 and 1933, and so it may be yet again--either in 2009 or 2013, or perhaps, if we really do change into an authoritarian nation of massive inequality and widespread poverty, in another eighty years, when generations yet unborn manage to put the United States back on the right path again.

1 comment:

Mike Eliason said...

Hi David! Long time no speak!

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the Aviator. Hughes was definitely a great G.I. who as a generation achieved great things in the arena of air travel.

Which makes me wonder -- what will the Millennial innovations be that transform our world? Only time will tell.