The Reading Room

The Great or Greedy?

Alistair Cooke on Donald Trump….

I have been working my way through the excellent Letter from America by the British-American journalist Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) Cooke ran the longest radio-speech broadcast show in the world for fifty eight years, he was at the heart of American politics and presidents for decades where he won praise for his coverage of JFK’s assassination and was only yards away from Bobby Kennedy when he was murdered in 1968.

The book contains essays covering a great span of twentieth century history including Vietnam, Watergate and Martin Luther King through to September 11th and the 2004 elections. But one particular piece which caught my eye in a week in which the film mogul Harvey Weinstein has been outed for his abuse of power was his piece on the money makers of late eighties America.

In The End of the Eighties-Great or Greedy published in April 1990, Cooke wrote about the case of the American  billionaire financier Michael Milken aka The King of the Junk Bond. Whilst Milken comfortably paid out some $600 million in fines and settlements he, like Weinstein suffered a long fall from grace..”The exposure and ruination of a banker or other prominently wealthy man is always a fascinating story and-let’s admit it-to most of us a meanly satisfying story. In a Depression there are scores of them. They come, they excite us, they go. But every so often, the sudden decline and fall of one man sounds more like a general warning, a fire alarm than a personal calamity, whenever the fallen man is seen as a symbol of a system that has gone awry”

Milken came to symbolise Wall Street greed in the 1980s, the money makers and their powers were well documented by Hollywood who, ironically have shown one of their leading men to be guilty of similar abuse. Is Weinstein the first fire alarm for the movie industry? One wonders…

Later on in the piece, Cooke talks of those men at the top of the financial playlist in America and how their autobiographies sold in their millions to wannabe American billionaires. Twenty seven years ago, Cooke observed one particular ‘titan’; “….by Donald Trump, the young bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over the hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities-why not the country?-appear to be boundless”

As the decades since those power-crazed days of the eighties pass by has anything fundamentally changed? Will Weinstein’s case prove to be a catalyst for change in an industry renowned for its abuse of power and inequality? It is difficult to think it will, because, like Trump, money talks and money impresses. Trump’s voters may well have believed he could save the Detroit car industry but they also fell for the wealth and the sense of power wealth brings. I’m not sure we are very far on at all.

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