Friday, September 21, 2007

Groton Boys Can't Lose

The Financial Times has a brief discussion of (among other things) the nexus of class and foreign policy in an interview with Louis Auchincloss this weekend. It's worth a quote:

“I used to say to my father,” he says, “ ‘If my class at Yale ran this country, we would have no problems.’ And the irony of my life is that they did.” He pauses before invoking a 20th-century American foreign-policy who’s who: “There was Cy Vance, Bill Scranton, Ted Beale, both Bundys, Bill and McGeorge – they all got behind that war in Vietnam and they pushed it as far as they could. And we lost a quarter of a million men. They were all idealistic, good, virtuous,” says Auchincloss, “the finest men you could find. It was the most disillusioning thing that happened in my life.”

Auchincloss has struggled to understand just how their shared patrician background could have produced this disconnect. And the answer would appear to be that wars are lost, if not always made, on the playing fields of New England. “Bill Bundy and I shared a study at Groton, and one day he came in from a football game, and I said: ‘Who won?’ and he said: ‘We lost,’ and then he burst into tears. You cannot lose. Groton cannot lose. That’s what they believed in, no matter what,” explains Auchincloss. “They all would have all been willing to die, if they hadn’t already been in high positions. They believed America cannot lose. We stand for every virtue and right that’s in the world.”

I'm reminded that George Kennan, a Milwaukee boy, always felt like an outsider in such company. But I wouldn't say that the hubris Auchincloss describes is peculiar to the old East Coast elite. Bush's own pedigree aside, the present administration is no WASP preserve, yet a parallel belief in American invincibility and innocence, albeit in cruder form, has long prevailed among the president's popular conservative base. The WASPs came out of the Vietnam era disillusioned not just with the war and America's role in the world but with their own identities. Will something similar happen to conservatives--or ex-conservatives, as may then be the case?

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