Editorial, Providence Journal, Memorial Day 2007

‘Go waste,' my good fellowProjo

Monday, May 28, 2007

The American Ruling Class is a tad insulated from the socio-economic anxieties of most of us. Thus former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee suggested to the University of Rhode Island's graduating class last week that they "go waste," in James Michener's purported version of John Soule's (later made famous by Horace Greeley) advice to "Go West, young man."

Mr. Chafee suggested to the new graduates that they take time off to have adventures - life-changing experiences. Mr. Chafee noted that after he graduated from Brown he went west and became a blacksmith, in which job he worked at race tracks in Alberta. He spent seven years at it.

All colorful and charming. Paging Ring Lardner! But that he could do this was made a lot easier by the fact that Mr. Chafee comes from a family with loads of inherited wealth and power that let him have his adventures pretty much risk-free, at least economically speaking.

Many students, however, leave college with heavy debts and have to make a living fast. Not for them the luxury of "finding themselves" for years. When Mr. Chafee was finished with his adventures out West, he could come back to Rhode Island and a life of luxury, privilege, and, yes, politics and public service.

The former senator, now with a position at Brown, presented to him in part because of his strenuous and very popular criticism of another rich establishment politician, George W. Bush, advised his listeners to have their experiences before getting weighed down by "mortgages, credit-card bills." We suspect that neither of those responsibilities has been a major personal concern for Lincoln Davenport Chafee.

This recalls the man, also born to inherited wealth and position, who defeated him in last November's election - his friend Sheldon Whitehouse, who once said he was "trained and basically bred to do" public service. Sort of like 19th Century England. That he didn't have to make a living eased the move into public service. Checks would arrive in any event.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously noted that the "rich are different from you and me." That difference sometimes shows in the attempts of the privileged to sound like one of The People when in fact they psychically reside on a very different planet. But then, away from the photo ops, the private lives of the rich tend to be almost entirely with people with very similar backgrounds, including, of course, the people they choose to marry. Keep it in the club!

Still, Fitzgerald also famously said: "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." So give Messrs. Chafee and Whitehouse credit for trying to mix with the masses.

- Robert B. Whitcomb

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