ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA. — More than a few people here were more than a little surprised to discover that old Dr. Tauber, the guy who still charges just $5 for office visits by his oldest patients, is one of the richest people in the United States. But that's what it says in the new issue of Forbes magazine: Laszlo Tauber is worth $500 million.
A half-billionaire, Mr. Tauber is listed in the new Forbes 400 -- the 400 richest people in America -- and it says he is the federal government's largest landlord. The feds lease more than 4 million square feet to various departments and agencies across the Potomac in Washington.
It is quite an American story, in more ways than one. Dr. Tauber, a Jew born in Hungary, managed to stay a step ahead of Nazi extermination squads during World War II and arrived in New York in 1948 as a refugee. He was 33 years old and had barely a penny to his name.
It is a familiar, exciting story. But the most interesting part is what happened after Dr. Tauber was finally able to try to practice medicine again. He began looking for a small office and made an astounding discovery about his new country: In America, you could borrow money to buy real estate. Mortgages. Credit. These were new words to him.
Dr. Tauber saw America whole. Like many immigrants, he saw what many Americans miss or forget or take for granted. In Europe, a man needed cash to buy property. You had to be rich. In America, the doctor saved $1,500, got a mortgage and bought a four-unit apartment house in Washington. One thing led to another, and at the age of 76, Dr. Tauber is wealthy beyond dreams and could afford to practice medicine free if he felt like it.
''America is the greatest country in the world,'' a Frenchmen once said to me in a compartment of a train from Paris to the south. He interrupted our conversation, four of us Americans, talking about the problems of our native land, things that were not so great in the United States.
''Why do you say that?'' I asked.
''Americans invented credit,'' he said. Actually we didn't, the British did, but we democratized credit, making it possible for Dr. Tauber and me to buy our houses.
Most of us do take too much for granted, not thinking about how different America and American systems are from the way the rest of the world works. The lesson of Dr. Tauber's American story is that we are the ones who are different in this old world; that's why they called our part the New World. A man from St. Louis living in England, T.S. Eliot, said: ''And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.''
Eliot had the perspective of the expatriate, Dr. Tauber the perspective of a foreigner. So did a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1831, when the young aristocrat traveled the new United States taking notes for the book he called ''Democracy in America,'' this was his first notebook entry: ''There are in the United States a great number of business failures, and these do not sufficiently injure those who are responsible.''
He was puzzled by our lenient bankruptcy laws. They are lenient still: You go broke; you start over. In France, debtors went to prison. There are few second chances in most of the world. In fully developed societies, modern France, for example, there is usually only one chance per citizen. National examinations at the end of what we would call high school determine what kind of education and job will be provided for each young person.
The second chance, and the third, and fourth, and on and on, is what makes America different. People move on, change jobs, careers, families and personalities. They go back to school; we are the only people who have continuing education. The greatest of American freedoms is the freedom to fail -- and to try again.
One can succeed anywhere, especially with well-chosen parents. But the mark of failure is a permanent stain almost everywhere. Americans can use and abuse the right and power to change themselves, to start over -- to be whoever you say you are. In most other societies, people know exactly who you are, or were born to be, or supposed to be the minute you open your mouth. Singles bars, where with any kind of luck you can be whoever you say you are for a night, are an appropriate American creation. So are phony resumes.
This is, by a very long shot, the most open society on our little planet. Open, though not necessarily fair -- other societies may have more equitable systems and laws, including laws to protect the victims of bankruptcies. But life had not been particularly fair to Laszlo Tauber before he stepped into the United States 42 years ago and realized that there really were streets paved with gold -- if you looked.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.