Once in a while, some white knight arises in America to save the WASPs from their despair, but he gets hammered on till even his friends laugh at him--one thinks of Elliot Richardson running for the Senate, Endicott (Chub) Peabody losing elections in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and John Lindsay as mayor of New York.
There was a day when the WASPs ruled, and everybody else was the exception that proved their entitlement. But for the last century they have been slinking back into a kind of seedy twilight like another American archetype, the Indians, until they exist largely as a collection of legends--"The Great Gatsby,” the old-boy founders of the CIA, Skull and Bones, the Lodges speaking only to the Cabots--along with best-selling exploitations such as “The Official Preppy Handbook” and pathetic souvenir stands such as Ralph Lauren’s Polo stores.
You knew this. Why bring it up again? Who cares except maudlin prep school boys who didn’t get into Yale?
The Fall Guy
George Bush cares. George Bush is a WASP. The President-elect is a member of the last ethnic group in America that can be publicly scorned, stereotyped, mythologized and envied. And as his brutal but triumphant campaign against Michael Dukakis, an ethnic immigrant, showed, WASPs still can be fair game, the fall guy.
They have been exempted from the prudery we exercise around minorities. We don’t even think about WASPs as a minority, although they constitute less than a quarter of the population, and in the 1980 census had median incomes below those of households whose heads were Japanese, Filipino, Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific Islander, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Korean, German, Irish and Aleut. No one worries about offending WASP ethnic sensitivities. The cliches of the WASP live on.
“The MacNeil/Lehrer News-Hour”: “Upper-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs--and that’s what George Herbert Walker Bush, a graduate of Andover and Yale, most emphatically is. So what happens? Bush (has been) lampooned as the ultimate Ivy League preppie whose favorite drink is probably Perrier Lite and whose idea of soul food is quiche.”
On and on, smoldering in a sort of dump fire of the American soul, fueled by historic grudges--of Catholics against Protestants, Western farmers against Eastern money men, one side of the tracks against the other, immigrants against Brahmins, the valley against the hill, Southerners against Yankees.
Bush speech writer Peggy Noonan: “We all play our ethnic group and wear our affiliation; but how do you wear true-blue WASP in the new America? With a kind of wry awkwardness, it seems.”
Envy is a complicated business, the hatred of something you want, the resentment of something you admire. And not only have non-WASP Americans envied WASPs, but the WASPs have pulled off the neat trick of seeming to envy themselves, feeding as they do on the New England boiled dinner of both self-loathing and smugness.
Great Prep Schools
In a short story called “Winter Dreams,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “He knew the sort of men they were--the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger. Yet in acknowledging to himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang.”
Very complicated. To start with, the acronym WASP makes no sense. It is redundant--most Anglo-Saxons are Protestant and all are white, but logic has been overridden by the piquancy of a hint at petulant insect violence. It also appeals to the same sort of sloth that has us categorize people by their handwriting or astrological sign. And it provides a cop-out for Americans who would rather blame our troubles on ethnicity than on class. Talking about class smacks of Marxism, for one thing, and it goes against the strange but popular belief that America is a classless society.
Hence the usefulness of an acronym such as WASP, which uses ethnic and religious terms to describe what most people think of as a segment of the upper classes. (Lower-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants aren’t called WASPs. They are called hillbillies, crackers, swamp Yankees, white trash or the popular “redneck,” as Randall Robinson, leader of American anti-apartheid protests, referred to presidential candidate Pat Robertson earlier this year.)
The acronym didn’t even come into common circulation until the 1960s, when a sociologist named E. Digby Baltzell, at the University of Pennsylvania, picked it up in his book “The Protestant Establishment.”
However, if we define WASPs as a ruling Establishment, a majority or a rich minority, they don’t have much to do with the real white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in America.
According to 1988 data gathered by Chicago’s NORC, formerly the National Opinion Research Center, 13.7% of Americans say they are of English and Scottish origin--for comparison, about 12% of Americans are black. Statistically, in other words, pure WASPs are a minority. Even when you count people both wholly and partly of English ancestry, they total about 50 million, about the same as people who define themselves as wholly or partly German.
The WASPs are not a very rich minority, either. Granted, 9.9% of households of English or Scottish ancestry have incomes of more than $60,000 a year, compared with 8.1% of all American households. But median household incomes in the 1980 census place WASPs--at $16,746--behind 11 other groups, six of them usually considered to be minorities. One reason is that a lot more white Anglo-Saxon Protestants live in trailers in Appalachia than in neighborhoods like the one where George Bush grew up in Greenwich, Conn., but no one thinks of them as WASPs.
These statistics are hazy--about 20% of Americans either can’t or won’t respond to requests for their ancestry--but they make it hard to equate white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with a focus for national envy and the image that the word WASP brings to mind. This is not to say that WASPs don’t exist, or that they haven’t wielded power culturally, politically or financially, but to say that it’s hard to find one who meets all the specs.
So let’s look at the myth.
The word summons up good breeding (horses, roses, people) and things that are right (people, addresses, forks); a people graceful under fire and awkward on the dance floor; a world of alcoholic crypto-Brits with their monograms in little yachting flags on the sides of their station wagons; Ivy Leaguers ashamed of any mark higher than a B-minus; Puritans venting their ids on fox hunting; thin-lipped debutantes with last names for first names (Whitney, Paige, Kendall . . .), and God as a sort of Julia Child without the sense of humor; a world of scholars of crossword puzzles and genealogies, of a careless, even shabby elite beating the rest of us over our heads with their modesty, prudence, thrift and sense of entitlement.
Now, WASPs are big. Spy magazine says there is a craze, and calls it “WASPmania.” Sydney Biddle Barrows, the “Mayflower Madam,” told the women in her brothel to dress as if their grandfathers were taking them to lunch at “21"--the WASP as sexual fetish! “The Official Preppy Handbook,” by Lisa Birnbach, is a guide to tribal ritual and trappings: things to monogram, things not to monogram and 20 slang terms for drunkenness.
The myth of the WASP is full of a kind of ambivalence, a love-hate routine. Witness the image of Bush as both war hero and wimp; as red-blooded patriot and anemic scion of a caste barricaded in exclusive suburbs; as aristocrat with nothing to prove and soulless toady compelled to prove himself endlessly; as a man who reminds every woman of her first husband and a man every mother wants her daughter to marry.
Fellow Old Boys
No wonder voters had a hard time getting a fix on just who George Bush is. No wonder Garry Trudeau, a graduate of St. Paul’s School and Yale, and our leading router-out of WASP-rot, portrays Bush in “Doonesbury” as being invisible, and paired with an evil twin. No wonder, too, that Trudeau is flailing away at his fellow old boys. This has been the WASP tradition for a century now, a tradition of opportunistic self-laceration, a glorying in decline.
WASPs have wallowed in their belief that they’re dying out in a sort of twilight of the gods.
By the late ‘60s, Norman Mailer was working in an honored WASP tradition when he wrote, in “Nixon in Miami,” that WASPs “were the most powerful force in America, and yet they were a psychic island. If they did not find a bridge, they could only grow more insane each year, like a rich nobleman in an empty castle chasing elves and ogres with his stick . . .”
In 1971, Michael Novak, now a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in “The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics” that WASPs were so out of touch with the reality of their power that the solution was: “To wit, let every WASP lady by law, in yearly ritual, in full public gaze, strangle an abandoned cat with no other assistance but her bare hands. Let every WASP male wring the neck of a chicken until its head pulls bloodily free, or in some other way, sticky with felt violence, get the feeling of changing history and mastering the environment.”
Loony as this sort of thing sounds, it echoes decades of WASP complaining about a lack of authenticity, a lack they sought to fill with ordeals and quests, such as Teddy Roosevelt testing his manhood as a cowboy in the Dakotas and a Rough Rider in Cuba. Rich young men were keen indeed on World War I, forming the Lafayette Escadrille and fighting and dying in large numbers. At St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., a monument to those who died in that war shows an Angel of Death of such voluptuousness that one senses the school and its upper-class supporters were grateful for the slaughter--that the war had redeemed them in their own eyes.
It’s this sort of ordeal that supporters of George Bush bring up when they want to defend him against charges that he is inauthentic, a wimp. They point out that he was a flier and a hero in World War II, and that he then headed West after Yale to duke it out with Texas oilmen.
The attackers see no contradiction between Bush-as-war-hero and Bush-as-wimp. Perhaps this is because the combination of the two is an old WASP stereotype.
We love them, we hate them.
Newsweek: “Prescott and his wife, Dorothy Walker Bush, sought to breed in their children the old-fashioned WASP virtues of integrity, fairness and sportsmanship.”
People magazine: “He is the scion of an old-moneyed line of East Coast WASPs. . . .”
Forbes magazine: “Mebbe brains and backbone will overcome the presumed political disadvantage--these days--of WASPness.”
The Boston Globe: “The WASP background: Yale, the Skull and Bones at Yale, son of a Connecticut senator, the Maine coast and squash and tennis. He is very sensitive to the harpoon of Garry Trudeau’s ‘Doonesbury’ and said he was into horseshoes and the Oak Ridge Boys for music, which is supposed to smack of the good ol’ boy.”
The myth lives on.