Review Rewind: Robert Frank’s ‘Richistan’

Review Rewind is an occasional look at backlist titles of interest.

Americans are enamored with the wealthy.

We take national pride in the rags-to-riches story, the mom-and-pop store that makes it big. We say things like “only in America” and call the United States a “land of opportunity.” We value the better mousetrap and laud its inventor with gobs of money.

But those are more the marks of success than of wealth. What really fascinates us is the money. We drive by McMansions and wonder what the owners do for a living, how much money they make, and how they spend it.

Since 2003, The Wall Street Journal has devoted a full-time reporter to chronicle the comings and goings of America’s New Rich – the dot-com billionaires, hedge-fund managers, CEOs, etc., that are redefining America’s upper-upper class.

Journal reporter Robert Frank got the idea in 2003 when he discovered a report from the Federal Reserve Bank that said the number of millionaire households in the United States had more than doubled since 1995.

“After seeing the Fed numbers,” Frank says, “I started to wonder about all these rich people. Who were they? How did they get rich? How was money changing their lives? Most importantly, how were they changing life for the rest of us?”

The answers have come in the form of the Wealth Report column and blog that Frank writes for the Journal and his new book, Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich (Crown Business, 2007).

Frank’s premise – that America’s rich have formed an insular, separate country unto themselves – came from his reporting at a 2004 yacht convention in Ft. Lauderdale. A yacht owner from Texas told him: “You look at all these boats and you’d think everyone’s making loads of money. It’s like a different country.”

Even in Richistan, there is a class structure – “upper-class warfare between the haves and have-mores” – that Frank divides into Lower ($1 million to $10 million net worth), Middle ($10 million to $100 million) and Upper Richistan ($100 million to $1 billion). Billionaireville, the have-mosts, has grown from 13 American families in 1985 to more than 1,000 today.

And no one is content. When asked how much money they would need to feel secure, millionaires routinely give an answer that is twice their personal wealth, whether that is $5 million or $50 million. Middle and Upper Richistanis call Lower Richistanis “affluent” as a pejorative.

Even billionaires get insecure. Timber baron Tim Blixseth – worth $1.2 billion and ranked No. 322 on the Forbes 400 – had a multi-billionaire buddy over to his estate to play a round at his private golf course. Afterward, the multi-billionaire made a $400 million offer for the entire estate. Blixseth politely declined. “Now that guy,” Blixseth said, “he was rich.”

The book’s chapters are narrative anecdotes that describe particular facets of life in Richistan, from a college for butlers (now “household managers”) to a clash of new money vs. old money in a Palm Beach ballroom to innovative approaches to philanthropy to multi-millionaire support groups.

Richistan’s cast includes predictably self-congratulating boors – including one who gave Frank a spreadsheet of his charitable giving and “permission” to write about it – but also fascinating characters who illustrate the complexity and variety of life in Richistan.

Blixseth is one of the more interesting. He made a fortune in timberland speculation in the 1980s, lost it all by getting over-leveraged, started over, and by 1990 was again worth millions. He now has 500,000 acres of real estate holdings, luxury destination clubs, a record label, and a strict no-debt philosophy. For his wife’s 50th birthday party, Blixseth put on a lavish Wizard of Oz production – Munchins and all – and Paul Anka sang a special version of “My Way.”

Ed Bazinet, who founded the company that makes Snow Village ceramic cottages, mocked his devotees by stamping “Get a Life” – he had a special stamp made – on effusive letters from collectors. Retired since 1997, Bazinet built a $30 million Manhattan penthouse that became a constant frustration to him: he sued the contractor, cannot understand the lighting and security systems, and obsesses over a scratch in the glass stairwell. He recently put the penthouse back on the market.

There are undoubtedly boring billionaires who live in modest homes and watch soap operas all day, but a chapter about stealth Richistanis would have cut against Frank’s definition of New Rich as not just rich but flamboyantly rich. Still, the modestly wealthy are out there, and the contrast could have been compelling.

Frank gives little attention to the question he said was most important – how the rich are changing life for everyone else – but in his summary chapter he talks of the growing divide between the rich and poor that presidential candidate John Edwards has called “Two Americas.” Franks seems to agree, noting that median household income in America fell for the fifth straight year in 2005 and that the rich have, essentially, education and healthcare systems that are far superior to those available to the poor.

(Cornell economics professor Robert Frank – same name, different guy – covers this ground more thoroughly in Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (University of California Press, 2007), which recently became available on Kindle.)

Richistan has factoids galore: North Carolina has more millionaires than India. Lower Richistanis skew Republican, but Middle and Upper Richistanis skew Democratic. The inflation rate for the super-rich is triple the national inflation rate because of soaring demand for luxury goods. A pair Iranian immigrant brothers started Hot Pockets (frozen pizza snacks) in the 1990s and sold the company to Nestle in 2002 for $2.6 billion.

Frank covers the New Rich like a foreign correspondent or Atlanta Braves beat reporter, providing a close-up perspective of a topic with wide interest and narrow access. Whether the topic merits the attention (or this kind of attention) is open for debate, but Frank certainly makes wealth feel important, as American an institution as baseball, SUVs and apple pie.

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Nibble on a Politico e-book snack

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on June 25, 2013.

In the opening anecdote of Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin’s The End of the Line, their behind-the-scenes e-book about the last month of the 2012 presidential campaign, we join our regularly scheduled election already in progress:

It was more than an hour after the networks had called the election, and Mitt Romney had not addressed the media or made the traditional concession phone call to the winner.  David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were agitated.  Obama’s campaign manager called the Romney campaign manager and got his voice mail.  “He’ll call,” Obama told his team.  Finally, at 12:30 a.m., after much of America had seen the outcome and gone to bed, Obama’s phone rang.  “Hello, Mr. President, it’s Mitt Romney…”

The End of the LinePolitico goes on on a limb to call the series “a new form of campaign chronicle, combining the in-depth reporting of a book with the immediacy of deadline journalism.”  I think that’s largely right, but the depth and immediacy necessarily work at cross purposes.

The e-book is the fourth in the Politico Playbook 2012 series that Politico and Random House published during — and this volume about a month after — the 2012 campaign.  (Politico Playbook is the name of Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen’s influential morning tip-sheet, which has quotes and links to news stories that are making the rounds, and — oddly — birthday wishes to D.C. political and media figures.)

The first e-book in the series, The Right Fights Back by Allen and historian Evan Thomas, was published in November 2011 as the Republican primary battle was heating up. It zig-zagged through the Republican challengers’ campaigns and included a lot of gossipy, anecdotal tidbits.

The second, Inside the Circus, also by Allen and Thomas and largely about the campaign for the GOP nomination, included a previously unreported story about Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had back surgery shortly before jumping into the campaign and was taking pain medication, loudly singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in a public restroom before one of the Republican primary debates.

The third, Obama’s Last Stand by Politico’s Glenn Thrush, focused on the Obama campaign. The fourth, The End of the Line, focused on the last month of the campaign and was published a month after the election.

If journalism is the first draft of history, the Politico Playbook 2012 series falls somewhere between the first draft and the second.  It lacks the narrative power of, say, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s best-selling Game Change.  But Game Change was published 14 months after the 2008 election; three-fourths of the Playbook 2012 series was published during the 2012 campaign.

The major innovation of the series was its availability on platforms like Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The e-books were inexpensive ($2.99 each on all platforms) and short without being insubstantial (50-60 book pages each). The quality of the reporting — the access, insight, scope, buzz-worthiness, etc. — is what you would expect from experienced campaign reporters like Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin, though they were not alone in taking a long-form approach to covering the campaign.

The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza produced a thoughtful and timely body of campaign reportage that included several longform pieces and an illuminating piece two weeks after the election that has been uncannily prescient on the Republican Party’s often conflicting efforts to make inroads with a growing Latino population by tackling immigration reform. John Heilemann’s May 2012 New York magazine piece about the Obama team’s framing of the campaign and Michael Lewis’s October 2012 profile of President Obama for Vanity Fair were important, agenda-setting pieces that were little different than short e-books in their length and scope.

A handful of other influential e-books were published during and immediately after the 2012 campaign, including Mother Jones reporter David Corn’s Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner Cantor and the Tea Party in March 2012 and 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings (who died tragically a few days ago in an automobile accident) published one of the first lengthy accounts of the Obama campaign, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign, in January.

The Playbook 2012 series is a breezy, fly-on-the-wall, real-time reporter’s notebook.  Campaign insiders retell and analyze events that we all watched in real-time — the stump speeches, the ads, the debates, and election night.  It is not a definitive history of the election and does not purport to be, but two themes do emerge: Obama’s early success in defining Romney and the Romney campaign’s certainty to the last minute that they were going to win.

The Obama campaign started running battleground-state ads against Romney as soon as the Republican primary ended in May.  By branding Romney so early and with so much available bandwidth to get the message out before voters were sick of campaign ads, the Obama camp established Romney’s brand before Romney could do so himself.

The Romney brand?  Shortly after the election, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour described the Obama team’s take on Romney as aptly as I’ve seen in The End of the Line:  “This was all personal: that Romney is a vulture capitalist who doesn’t care about people like you, ships jobs overseas, is a quintessential plutocrat, and is married to a known equestrian.”  Exactly.

Thrush and Martin describe Romney’s now-infamous 2008 “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed in the New York Times  as “the major impediment to seriously challenging Obama in the industrial Midwest — especially in Ohio” and as the impetus for Romney’s disastrous late-October TV ad that accused Obama of moving Chrysler jobs to China that drew a sharp, public rebuke from Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

All of the interviews for The End of the Line were conducted either after the election or before but with the understanding that the story would not be published until after the election, so it provides one of the earliest glimpses of the big moments of the campaign with the first layer of spin peeled away.  What emerges is a bizarre dual reality — both campaigns getting increasing confident of victory the closer they got to election day.

One of the campaigns, of course, turned out to be delusional and fantastically wrong — blindly relying on voter-turnout models that reality would not later bear out.

“I totally believed we were going to win,” Romney finance chief Spencer Zwick told the authors, “and I think everyone around [Romney] believed we were going to win.  If anyone tells you that they knew we weren’t going to win, I think they’re lying to you.”

Weeks before The End of the Line was published, I had read Politico and The New Republic‘s stories about the Romney camp’s election-night optimism. Still, it was jarring to see the conviction in Romney pollster Neil Newhouse the day before the election as he predicted wins in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire — not in a booster-ish public statement but in a private, all-caps email to the Romney campaign senior staff.

The End of the Line’s real value is in the never-before-published personal anecdotes:  Obama driving Robert Gibbs’ Chevy Volt around the White House parking lot.  White House press secretary Jay Carney doing the “Gangnam Style” dance.  Obama getting drilled in mock debate after mock debate by Sen. John Kerry and then by Romney in the actual first debate.

The e-book shifts between the two campaigns, but the Obama story is a better read.  It’s hard to tell if that’s because Obama’s was the more interesting of the two campaigns to cover, or if the reporters simply had better access to the Obama staffers than to the Romney staffers.

I suspect it’s both.  The bulk of the the reporting on the Romney campaign showed it to be a corporate outfit with a small group of decision-makers.  And there’s no evidence that two of the more significant campaign figures — Romney’s wife Ann and oldest son Tagg — gave interviews to the authors.

Ultimately, The End of the Line is what it is — a $2.99, two-hour, behind-the-scenes read that casts some new reporting into the well of coverage of the 2012 campaign at a time when books like Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (published earlier this month) is just joining the conversation and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s  Double Down: Game Change 2012 (coming November) is still a ways off.