"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 19, 2024

American Politics - The Fine Art Of Bluster, Nonsense And The Rise Of A Progressive Star

Bobby Benson had grown up poor but advantaged.  His father was in the aluminum siding and encyclopedia business, and he accompanied him on his door-to-door calls. These bilking scams were part of the American entrepreneurial repertoire until the Seventies when they were outlawed.  'Buyer Beware' was not good enough to cover the silver-tongued, persuasive, engaging homilies and entreaties of Bobby's father who could get people to sign up for a thousand-dollar set of Britannica, no money down, one a month from A to Z, with interest, until they forfeited, the Indonesia knock-off books repossessed, and money in the pocket.


The aluminum siding business was even more lucrative - find a family deeply mortgaged in a dilapidated single family with roof rot and foundation problems and offer them a makeover in aluminum siding, guaranteed for a lifetime, painted and bossed for free.  Their house had been chosen to be a model for the new generation of siding, and 10 percent of the value of every neighboring family's new purchase would be passed on to them for free.

Of course no siding was ever put up, and all monies were absorbed for 'administrative costs' and parceled out to Bobby's father and his Newark crew to sell more phony contracts. 

Bobby's father was a genius at sales promotion. In his pitch he played on every parent's hope for Harvard, cloyingly, persuasively thumbing through the hardbound volumes to read about Aztecs or Zapotecs and digress into geography and cultural history.  No home could be without a complete set of books, guaranteed to raise IQ, intellectual interest, and academic ambition.

Satisfaction guaranteed, he always added unnecessarily since as usual the homeowner had taken the bait hook, line, and sinker and begged for more - special siding for a brother, a set of books for a cousin, until Bobby's father's order book was out of pages. 

Bobby was there to add 'dimension' to his father's pitch.  A bright young boy who had benefitted from the set of Britannica could sell books on his own, but as a member of the father-and-son tag team, he helped take home thousands. 

So it was not surprising that Bobby went into sales, first retail, then wholesale, and eventually into financial instruments, complex bundles of mortgages, securities, bonds, and commodities that made millions for his Wall Street investment firm. After selling fictional, never-to-be-built siding to Down Neck pipe fitters, getting rid of devalued but 'promising' securities to eager online customers was as easy as pie. 

Selling came naturally to him, and thanks to his father who never once looked back on a scam with regret or remorse, who not only believed in Caveat Emptor but 'A Sucker Is Born Every Minute', both complete exonerations of every sketchy scheme thought up by Wall Street or down home.  What was sales, after all, but selling a product which nobody needed, convincing them they did, and making millions from the deal?

Advertising was a fungible business - admen went from socks to Entresto in the blink of an eye.  Whether apparel or pharmaceuticals, there were consumers who never knew they needed them.

Bobby's father was not the first in the family to make money from unregulated sales.  His great-grandfather Hiram had made a fortune from Johnson's Elixir, a snake oil derivative claimed to cure gout, rheumatism, and jittery nerves.  Marketed especially to women, the Elixir had erectile properties and when put in the coffee of diffident spouses would do wonders for their sex lives. 

His uncle had been a master of what had pejoratively been called Ponzi schemes but which were actually pure entrepreneurism - programs which encouraged 'economic pyramids', great schemes of shared upward value; dynamic, highly mobile and transferrable assets which would make everyone rich. 

'You should go into politics', said a colleague at Baxter, Burnham & Ross; and Bobby admitted that the thought had crossed his mind.  How could selling ideas to the American public be any different from aluminum siding or creative financial instruments? Ambition, a silver tongue, and a way with women were all that had ever been needed door-to-door, on the Street, or in cyberspace.  He was made for the job and through Washington connections, he made his first foray. 

He had patience but he was a comer, so up through the ranks he went, through county seats, to legislative assemblies, and finally to Washington as a member of the progressive alliance, a group of radical environmentalists, feminists, and racial reformers whose new manifesto claimed the future. 

Bobby could have gone either way, Left or Right, conservative or liberal, but thought that progressivism lent itself best to his particular skills.  It was by nature idealistic and unconcerned by the record of a a discredited history.  No proof was needed that the old ways of individualism, capitalist exploitation, and imperial rule had given the world nothing but misery; and that the new millennium of progressive vision would erase all that had come before to inaugurate the Year Zero of hope and promise. 


What could be more suited to a true salesman than progressive politics?  Selling a vision and a Utopian ideal was right up his alley.  Facts, figures, and the archival record of past investments, programs, and initiatives were supernumerary, incidental trip-ups of history.  If he could sell aluminum siding, he could sell the American people on the political version of A Child's Garden Book of Verse. 

And so it was that Bobby's cash registers rang and his campaign chests filled.  He was a master of purposeful elocution.  His stump speeches were masteries of allusion, reference, and innuendo. His sense of timing, phrasing, and emphasis practiced in the parlors of Newark and the offices of Wall Street served him well; and before long he was feted, in demand, and loved. 

Of course as a true American huckster, he had no commitment to the progressive program - it was simply the best suited for his brand of facile promotion - and he certainly had no intention of staying on the field until time, but it was a good go, an extremely profitable enterprise.  Most of the monies in his coffers were from his various PACs, so they were fungible and almost without restriction; so while in Washington he led the good life and was able through some creative investments find ample and reasonable financing for homes in Aspen and Palm Beach. 

When to the dismay of his colleagues he retired from public office and took his sizeable fortune to the Bahamas, the Cote d'Azur, and Gstaad, he was as satisfied as anyone could be.  He had been a good legatee of Lincoln whose inspiration about American gullibility had made him millions and at the same time was a patriotic citizen who honored and never once demeaned American can-do enterprise

Bobby was a man of his times, his place, and his culture - a real American, unashamed of his snake oil, Ponzi scheme, shell game, aluminum siding past, recognizing it as the popular foundation of wealth and opportunity, and above all the greatest game on earth.  How could anyone gifted with a silver tongue and without moral traces, be unhappy?

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