Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A major story in Politico on Eric Braverman's eyebrow-raisingly abrupt departure from the Clinton Foundation has me reassessing Chelsea Clinton and, to some extent, my horror at the emerging hereditary aristocracy of American politicians and entertainers.

Obviously this hereditary aristocracy is deeply troubling. By contrast, the emergence of super-high incomes in the business world does not trouble me very much, in large part because success comes and goes in that sector. There are many abuses and injustices, but there is not a class of individuals with a permanent and indissoluble claim on power. (Quick, who had the ten highest incomes in America in 2005?) But in the political and entertainment worlds, the disturbing trend is that people are entitled to success by birth and throughout their lives, regardless of what they do. This is not easy to square with notions of justice in the political realm, and in the wider culture it represents a retreat from America's traditional striving for a “natural,” i.e. earned or meritocratic, aristocracy rather than the hereditary model.

Exhibit A: Chelsea Clinton's whole career of unearned power, including a six-figure deal with a major network news organization to do basically nothing.

But the Politico story is forcing me to reevaluate. If the picture painted by reporter Kenneth Vogel is even close to accurate, it would seem that the younger Clinton has been working assiduously behind the scenes to reign in the shady shenanigans at the Clinton Foundation. If all is as it seems, I can only say: kudos to Braverman and his patron, the younger Clinton, for taking on such a task and (apparently) having some success. Reformers don't get defenestrated because they failed to achieve their reforms.

Of course we can't discount the fact that these stories are usually slanted to one side. But sometimes they're slanted to one side because that side is wearing the white hats. Events do lend plausibility to Vogel's version of the story. And it doesn't exactly make Hillary Clinton look good to draw attention to the foundation's shady shenanigans, so it's hard to see how this story could have been planted for electoral purposes. More likely, Braverman and/or his friends are looking for an opportunity to put the story behind his resignation on the record.

Aristotle says democracies can only survive if the demos learns to be fair and just toward the aristoi, and aristocracies only survive if the aristoi learns to be fair and just to the demos. If the rise of people like Chelsea Clinton does indicate we are becoming a more aristocratic country, at least efforts like these are a sign of hope that the new aristocracy might not always be a bad one, as such things go.

Nonetheless, the Politico story has also prompted two discouraging images that I can't quite get out of my head.

One is William F. Buckley's description of seminaries operating behind the Iron Curtain, training a tiny number of pastors each year to serve people in countries under the Soviet boot. He called it “eye dropping holy water into hell.” Any effort to clean up such a fundamentally corrupt enterprise as the Clinton Foundation must bear something of that character. (Granted, in the Cold War the seminaries did have the last laugh in the end—but one would prefer not to see such a high body count standing between us and the happy ending.)

The other image I can't get out of my head is a scene from Godfather III. Mary Corleone, Michael's daughter, is the chair of the family's charitable foundation, which just made a $100 million donation. We know, but she doesn't, that the donation is part of Michael's elaborate scheme to suborn corrupt influence within the Vatican Bank.


Tony says that I’m a front for the foundation. That you’re using me just to pull the strings. To get the money where you want it.


Oh come on, please.


To shine up your public image.


Mary. Mary, this is real, this foundation, it’s real. I wanted Anthony to be a part of this. I wanted - I thought the two of you would be together on this. I won’t interfere. I’ll help, only, only if you ask.


What is this really for? Why are you doing this? Why am I doing this?


I’m doing this for my children. You’re doing it for your children, too.


This Foundation is supposed to help all people.


Of course, that’s the purpose. This is legitimate; Mary, I swear this is legitimate.

<Michael kisses Mary’s hand.>

I would feel better about the new aristocracy if it were producing more Tony Corleones.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles