How not to pursue the American dream
By Gene Lyons
Call me unpatriotic, but whenever I hear people prating about the "American dream," it sets my teeth on edge. The thing about dreams, see, is that they're imaginary. A figment of your imagination.
So you have a dream. Good for you.
I had a dream, too. When I was 12. I was going to be a major league pitcher. Over the ensuing years, however, it became gradually apparent that the fastball that wowed them in Little League might not carry me to World Series stardom.
To me, that's one of the big lessons of sports: realism. How good you are, how good you're not. How to deal with it.
It's when people bring unfettered illusions into the economic and political realm, however, that the trouble starts. One such example is a provocative essay in the May issue of The Atlantic by Neal Gabler.
Despite five well-received books and hundreds of magazine articles in all the prestigious places, Gabler finds himself dead broke at age 66 -- ducking creditors, driving a 19-year-old junker, in thrall to the IRS and having to borrow money from his adult daughters to pay the heating bill.
"Financial impotence," he calls it.
While he says he's not looking for sympathy, Gabler identifies with economically squeezed Americans who told pollsters for the Federal Reserve Board that they would have to meet a $400 emergency by either borrowing, selling something or worse.
"Four hundred dollars!" Gabler writes. "Who knew? ... Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent."
Well, Mitt Romney knew, if you recall. He expected GOP voters to be angry that a near-majority of Americans didn't earn enough to pay Federal income taxes (although many end up remitting a greater proportion of their wealth to the government than Romney himself).
However, Gabler's point isn't really political in the electoral sense. He professes concern about the aforementioned "American dream." He thinks it's a pity that only 64 percent in a 2014 New York Times poll professed belief in this phantasm, defined as "that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all."
Actually, no you can't. And you never could. Respectfully, Gabler appears to have spent too much time on planet Hollywood. He worries that people's money problems have "perhaps begun to diminish our national spirit. People want to feel, need to feel, that they are advancing in this world. It is what sustains them."
Some would say that defining the national spirit entirely in material terms can only lead to sorrow. But let's not get metaphysical in a newspaper column.
The author of biographies of Walt Disney, Walter Winchell and Barbra Streisand, Gabler appears to have fallen into what my friend Gwen Moritz aptly defines as "the fatal trap of believing that (he) deserved a lifestyle (he) simply couldn't afford."
To somebody like me whose professional career roughly parallels Gabler's, the man's personal choices are mind-boggling. As he correctly points out, "writer ... is a financially perilous profession." To keep your head above water, it's important to keep your wits about you. Without my wife's steadfastness and hard work, I'd never have made a go of it. But if wealth and status are your primary goals, you're probably in the wrong game.
Gabler appears to have made one financially ruinous decision after another -- hiding the truth from himself and his family with equal facility. Even his confession sometimes conceals as much as it reveals. Moritz says she actually screamed when Gabler mentioned cashing out his retirement account to pay for his daughter's wedding -- this after spending his father's savings to send his children to costly private colleges. He wanted them to be "winners."
Me, I was flabbergasted when he mentioned buying a house in East Hampton, New York, the most exclusive CEO- and celebrity-enclave on the East Coast. A visit to the yacht club there could make an ordinary peasant nostalgic for the age of piracy. This two years before selling his family's Brooklyn co-op. His combined mortgage payments must have rivaled Portugal's national debt.
Then there was Gabler's stretching out a lump-sum book advance by failing to pay taxes. Slate's Helaine Olen says "I don't believe there are 10 people in the United States who couldn't tell you that would end badly."
Equally bewildering is the personal angle. See, when they left the city, Gabler's wife gave up her career as a film executive. "(W) ith my antediluvian masculine pride at stake, I told her that I could provide for us without her help -- another instance of hiding my financial impotence, even from my wife. I kept the books; I kept her in the dark."
So what can she have been thinking? The wonder is that they haven't divorced.
It's a fascinating confession, but few will find it ultimately persuasive.
American dream, indeed.
Email Gene Lyons at email@example.com.
© 2016, Universal