2016-06-30
In 1967, Norman Podhoretz, then in his 30s, published a memoir based on a premise that he knew many would find disturbing. "I am a man who at the precocious age of thirty-five experienced an astonishing revelation," he wrote: "it is better to be a success than a failure." Not only that: "It is better to be rich than poor...better to give orders than to take them...better to be recognized than to be anonymous." Lest the point be missed, Podhoretz titled his reflections "Making It," an expression that bespeaks commercial payoffs and sexual conquest. The book's reception, furious in some quarters, was precisely what its author expected. "From the reviews one would have supposed that he had written 'Mein Kampf,'" recalled Diana Trilling, the doyenne of the New York intellectuals. Trilling herself was among the offended. In her own memoir, "The Beginning of the Journey," published in 1993, she deplored her onetime protege's "crudely boastful book." Plainly, he had opted for an existence "in which the desire for popular success as this might be defined in Hollywood had manifestly superseded the values of a well-trained and highly endowed intellectual."
Long-standing ideas about success have all but vanished from our common mythology.

Today Podhoretz's idea of success seems tame, even sentimental. Its outlines, at any rate, are very familiar: a bright young Brooklyn boy raised in a poor but hardworking family rises--on the strength of intellect, talent, diligence, optimism, and the intercession of helpful elders--to the top of his world, becoming a well-known critic and a lively figure in Manhattan salons. The journey culminates in the hero's triumphant editorship of Commentary magazine. The story reeks of respectability and might have been scripted by William Dean Howells. In Hollywood it would never fly. Where are the stock options, the trophy wife, the Palm Beach escapades, the Gulfstream jet?

To reread "Making It" against the background of the new age of excess is to realize that long-standing ideas about success have all but vanished from our common mythology. Podhoretz's climb up the literary ladder seems as dated as a Horatio Alger fable. This isn't surprising--or shouldn't be. Success has always been a fluid rather than fixed concept, whose meaning reflects larger cultural movements. The humble-origins model Podhoretz followed was formed in an industrial era marked by intense competition for limited rewards. Under those conditions, getting one's name on the masthead of a monthly journal of opinion, or rubbing elbows with Norman Mailer, really meant something, because so many others, equally driven and deserving, were reaching for the same few prizes. To succeed was to join the elect.
The spiritual model of success has given way to the model of success and failure as a game.

No wonder the big winners of the Gilded Age--the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans--radiated moral asceticism. They believed the fortunes they amassed were touched by divine providence, and were perhaps proof of God's invisible hand. John D. Rockefeller dispensed Baptist homilies as readily as the dimes he handed children on his Sunday walks. Carnegie dotted the landscape with libraries, each a small church in which communicants could immerse themselves in the mysteries of achievement.

In our own time, the spiritual model of success has given way to another: the model of success and failure as a game. Our symbols of making it are the Internet startup and the IPO, the billionaire created overnight. Jim Clark, the subject of Michael Lewis's "The New New Thing," has created not one but three billion-dollar Internet companies and goes about his business in the same spirit he brings to his pet project: designing a 157-foot yacht that can be sailed from his office by remote control, a colossal version of the elaborate toy sailboats you see in the Central Park pond being manipulated by grown-up men reliving boyhood pleasures. Once the ship is built, the new company launched, Clark will move on to the next. The game will have been won.

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, James Atlas reports on high-tech employees whose lives had been disrupted by the sudden advent of millions gained when their companies went public. Their good fortune seems detached from anything they have done or intended. Time and again, Atlas writes, he heard them say, "It's like winning the lottery" and "I didn't know what a stock option was." Now many are "cashing out" and tending to their inner selves.

To the robber barons of a century ago, this would have been unthinkable. They drew no such distinctions between the moral and the material world. Bailing out would have implied that the institutions they built--the House of Morgan or Standard Oil--were somehow less than sacred. Providence is not the same thing as a happy accident.

In the gaming model of success, there are no limits on resources. There is instead a steadily enlarging jackpot, and almost anyone can get a seat at the table. The main requirement is chutzpah, and the big winners are the highest rollers. Here the paragon is Donald Trump, whose real estate empire naturally includes casinos. On the verge of bankruptcy a few years ago, he's on top once more, with a new megatower that will leave the U.N. in its shadow and a new supermodel to keep him company in his private plane, which is furnished with a double bed and Impressionist canvases and is stocked with his favorite cream-filled cookies.

When Trump began testing the presidential waters last month, he was asked to cite his credentials. His reply was blunt: "It's success." Measuring himself against his rivals, he said that he might not know much about the minutiae of policy, but so what? "Did they make billions of dollars in a short period of time? No. Could they...? No." Besides, as he pointed out, guys like Al Gore and Bill Bradley are dull. When Trump goes on television--doing "Face the Nation," "Meet the Press," "Larry King"--he gets better ratings than they do. Doesn't that mean the people prefer him?

When Donald Trump was asked to cite his credentials for president, his reply was blunt:
"It's success."

Maureen Dowd has remarked that Trump's White House fantasies are the equivalent of those harbored by the contestants on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." She wonders if the credo of the '80s, "Greed is good," might be creeping back into fashion and fears that we're all becoming characters in an Ayn Rand power novel: "Everybody wants to spin that wheel and make a mil--on TV, on the Internet, on stocks and on the playing field." But of course greed never went away. There's just a lot more loot floating around. The current issue of Civilization magazine includes a photo of a man at a software convention, dollars spilling out of his fists. He had been playing a game, the magazine explains, in which contestants are showered with cash and get to keep all they can grab.

Success has become a synonym for luck. Even Norman Podhoretz, a sage of 70, semi-retired from Commentary, is getting in on the game. Some months ago, after the publication of his latest book, he let it be known that he was interested in doing an interview with Don Imus. A decade or two ago, he told me, he wouldn't have dreamed of such a thing. But hey, he wanted to sell some books. And who was I to criticize? I had gladly done my spot with Imus, too. Still, it makes you pine, at least a little, for John D. Rockefeller's dimes, though not for his sermons.

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