In America's mix of egalitarian and elitism, it's not hard to find oneself living or socializing in close proximity to great wealth. It's one of the oldest staples of Hollywood - the good (or bad) kid from a modest upbringing getting exposed to the ways of the upper class. The scholarship kid at boarding school. The everyday worker who marries the boss' daughter. That time you went to dinner in a fancy New York restaurant, surrounded by the obvious displays of people with far more money, if not taste, than yourself.
In some ways, I feel bad for Tom Price. It's not easy to be in close proximity to extravagance, natural, even, to feel somehow you should get to do and have the same things. I was a scholarship kid at a fairly elite private college where other kids drove the spare family BMW, amongst other luxuries large and small. I lived in Manhattan. I've had the privilege of a private showing of the Chanel Couture collection. As much as you think you know about wealth, there's always a level more.
Sadly, the lesson of the last few days is that these are the moments that really do show one's moral compass, and in that, Tom Price failed. Excessive use of private jets on the government dime is a ridiculous, petty excess that flies in the face of claims to cost consciousness and an interest in cutting the size of government. And it's not as though Price's fall was recent. His history of questionable stock deals in health companies while Chairing the House Committee overseeing their affairs was, it's clear, just an indication of Price's sense that he wanted in on the gravy train rolling nearby.
It's gotta sting when you're so very close to it, and reminded constantly of just how far away that life actually is.
Donald Trump may not be as wealthy as he claims, but he is, of course, the very essence of the eighties era "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" that he came to embody, and take as his "brand." (Trump, in fact, doesn't have the usual Gulfstream size PJ as his main plane - he has a 737 gaudily painted with his logo that hangs out, visibly, near the runways at LaGuardia.) And he has, naturally, stacked his Administration with like minded, and similarly well-heeled, millionaires and billionaires. In the midst of revelations this week involving a number of Trump officials... there sits Betsy DeVos, who doesn't spend government money on a jet, because she owns one.
Of course, as the adage goes, money can't buy taste, and the kind of wealth Trump and his friends bring to DC is a kind of ostentatious, showy display of wealth that rubs many, rich or not, the wrong way. Trump's gilded, golden everything decor in his homes and Country Clubs is designed to impress the easily awed, not demonstrate classic, sublime taste associated with older, quieter money (even DeVos, in that regard, seems more understated and private). Trump's is the conspicuous, elaborate consumption of someone who cares more about showing off, and the appearance of class than anything actually classy. Even Trump's much lampooned language about "the best" and "big league" in regards to what he owns betrays that endless need to show off, to preen and self aggrandize. What's sad, ultimately, about Price isn't just the small, petty nature of his fall - it's the way he let Trump's especially tasteless approach to extravagance further warp his own sense of entitlement. Surely, there are better ways to aspire to being upper class.
Trump's extravagant obviousness, too, is why losing Price is neither the end of this story, nor even likely it's worst example (and we do, after all, still have the oblivious displays of Steve Mnuchin and his recent bride, who may be hiding for now, but seem likely to reappear at any moment). The ridiculous trips, the family with no sense of propriety, combined with dozens of hangers-on, some rich and wasteful, some poor and aspiring... the stories can, and will, write themselves (the world waits, Scott Pruitt - don't stop now). And then of course, there's the even more familiar territory of say, Ryan Zinke, and the casual selling of favors to vested interests, like the oil and gas industry.
Still, at the heart of this Dynasty-like resurgence (I, for one, am not so sure that the CW's revival/reboot isn't a stroke of genius) is that sad, small tale of Tom Price. Covetousness and greed are embarrassing; it's almost painful to watch anyone's flaws laid out in such public, shaming display. American culture markets conspicuous consumption like it's, literally, going out of style. You will never have enough. You will never be rich enough, or thin enough, well dressed enough, or live luxuriously enough. The penthouse apartment, the private jet, the furs, the cars... the list is, truly, endless. And yet, how we punish those who succumb most to the siren's call. It is vengeful, bordering on cruel.
The trick of course, is to learn what it means to have enough. To see luxuries as just that - the occasional extra, a little bit more, a nice perk. When I get to fly in the front of the plane, dine in the 5 star restaurant, buy the Tom Ford fragrance at Saks... I try to remember to be grateful. And to enjoy it without asking for more. At the very least, it gives one the luxury of giving Tom Price something worse than scorn... and that's pity.