How cunning are the rich!

November 24, 1993|By Russell Baker

AN ANGRY letter writer who says he is rich accuses me of "rich-bashing" in a recent column. Not content with that, he insinuates that I am probably rich myself.

I deny this last charge and do so vehemently and categorically, just in case any deadbeat relatives, alumni associations or encyclopedia salesmen happen to be reading this newspaper.

If I were rich, would I be wearing an off-the-rack suit that fits as if it had been tailored for Dr. Frankenstein's deformed assistant, Igor?

On the other hand I confess gladly to being a basher of the rich. A good bashing keeps the rich from becoming insufferable. Not only that, giving them a sturdy bashing makes you feel tip-top if you don't happen to be rich yourself.

I don't know about you, but after I've engaged in a brisk bout of rich-bashing it comforts me no end to realize that, thanks to my fragile bank balance, I will never have to suffer that kind of abuse.

Of course, the only bashing I can dish out is verbal, and as Averell Harriman said many a time, "Sticks and stones et cetera, but words et cetera."

Yes, those were Harriman's precise words. He had had an excellent education and loved to use his Latin whenever opportunity arose. Moreover, he hated to utter cliches in their entirety. Since everybody knew them already, speaking them at full length used up valuable time that could be better used for expanding his fortune.

Or as he once told me, "A stitch in time et cetera."

Harriman was probably the richest rich man I ever went to the movies with. In those days Jack Valenti, the head of the movie lobby, used to invite me to screenings and Harriman was usually there since he loved movies, especially when he could get in free.

Like all truly rich people, he was terrified that somebody might discover he was rich enough to buy a movie ticket. Valenti later told me that I'd become a regular on the guest list after Harriman said he'd like to know what it was like to go to the movies with the unwashed masses.

At intermissions, whenever he was not on the phone telling the president how to deal with the Soviets or the Vietnamese, Harriman would ask me to bash him a little.

I hated to do it because not only was he a genuinely patriotic and hard-working rich man, but also because both of us always liked the same movies. Bashing Harriman was nothing like the fun you got out of bashing, say, Michael Milken when the yuppie rich were hogging all the money in the 1980s.

But Harriman let me know he would feel let down if I didn't, saying, "A friend in need et cetera."

One night the film broke and while the rest of us were stamping our feet and whistling to wake up the projectionist, I noticed that Harriman was not participating in the uproar. Later he told me that such riotous scenes left him petrified with terror.

They reminded him, he said, of Ronald Colman's great movie, "A Tale of Two Cities," in which the entire rich population of 18th-century France was thrown into tumbrels, hauled through the streets and bashed with guillotine blades while the crowd roared with delight.

Harriman was authentically rich. The angry letter writer who taxes me for journalistic "rich-bashing" is obviously not truly rich and, indeed, may not be rich at all, as he claims to be, but just another fellow with a top-of-the-line German car.

The truly rich can never be offended by a stiff verbal bashing. To the contrary, they are delighted to submit to it, for they know that a great deal of malice can be worked off in steamy words.

Or as Harriman, in an uncharacteristically long-winded observation, explained when I asked why he would never allow me to let up in applying the verbal bash to the rich, and especially him:

"Once malcontents have emitted the worst of their bile in schmooze, they will be too tired to do a lot of ax swinging."

Could he state the principle in plainer English? He could and did. "With your help," he said, "I will never have to say, 'It is a far, far better et cetera.' "

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times et cetera.

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