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Chronicling National Mania for Money

February 25, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Sex isn't nearly as interesting as money to most Americans.

Harper's magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham isn't kidding when he makes assertions like that, even though he tends to laugh in the middle of his bleakest statements about the ravages of money on this country's social landscape--and libido.

Lapham, with origins in the upper reaches of San Francisco's monied class, lately has cast himself as a wry doomsayer, a modern prophet admonishing his fellow citizens about "the pathology of wealth" in his new book "Money and Class in America" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.95).

The book is a long essay on Americans' obsession with money--how they get it, how they spend it for maximum status, how they protect it from the clutches of the undeserving and how the country seems to be mired in an era of gluttonous, grasping greediness. Based on a lifetime's worth of observation and reading, "Money and Class" chronicles such stories as going broke on $250,000 a year--or more--and paints a general portrait of what Lapham calls "the equestrian classes supported by the aerodynamics of money."

Lapham offers no cures for what he sees as a spendthrift society in which many aspire to that epitome of consumerism, "the higher shopping." But he does warn that in previous times of wretched excess the next step often has been recession--or war.

Seated in the lobby of a Beverly Hills Hotel the other day, Lapham, blue-blazered and crisply shirted, looked like almost anybody but a woe-betide-you sort. But some of the first words out of his mouth had a biblical tone.

"The worship of mammon is an old story," he said. "What I'm writing about is the American variation, an opulent variation I dare say, on a very old theme. Look what just happened to (former Texas) Gov. (John) Connally. Here's Connally, aged 70 or whatever he is, had $10 million, had a big farm, knew everybody, been secretary of the treasury, governor of Texas. But it wasn't enough, so he had to get himself involved with a real estate speculator and he went bust." (Much of the bankrupt Connally's worldly goods were sold at auction last month to help pay off his debts.)

But, alas, Lapham said, this sort of fate is not limited to a few rare, star-crossed individuals. It could happen to the country as a whole, he lamented, especially in a decade of massive federal deficits and public preoccupation with profit and conspicuous consumption.

"When you make money the bottom line in all your dealings, sooner or later, you end up in a lot of trouble--and that's part of the historical record," he said. "Spain, France, Italy, Rome, England all built up huge, opulent military establishments and eventually went bankrupt. I assume we will do the same. I mean, we have a $2 trillion debt and we will have to pay that off."

Much public spending and public policy in recent years, Lapham maintained, has been for the benefit of already wealthy corporations and individuals cashing in on government largess.

"Everything's for sale in Washington," he said. "It's a great big Middle Eastern-style bazaar where you can buy anything--weapons contracts, ambassadorial posts, tax exemptions, interest rates."

Previously such circumstances have had chilling consequences, Lapham noted.

"That's what happened in France," he explained, citing the period before the French Revolution. "The public treasury was sustaining a fairly small class of people who could afford this kind of luxury. It ended badly, that story," he said, referring to the fact that the French settled their more rancorous internal differences with the help of the guillotine.

Oh yes, about sex.

It's Lapham's contention that sex by itself is not enough to sustain long-term interest in a scandal in this country.

"Without the more radiant and divine element of money in the story, it's not a story," he argued.

For instance, consider last year's sex scandal involving televangelist Jim Bakker and church secretary Jessica Hahn, which forced Bakker--and his pleas for cash--off the airwaves.

In his book Lapham comments, "The Rev. Bakker's defeat at the hands of Satan allowed for a number of further questions--about a young girl maybe drugged, a minister conceivably well versed in the art of seduction, a cadre of church functionaries possibly employed as panders--but none of these lines of inquiry excited the popular imagination as much as the hope of fraud. . . . How much money was the Rev. Bakker gathering from the credulity of his flock? Where did the money go? What would become of the financial enterprise?"

Even in a seemingly straightforward sex scandal like the one that cost Democrat Gary Hart a good chance at the White House, Lapham hears the shuffle of greenbacks.

In "Money and Class," Lapham writes that "What bothered people was his lack of business acumen. If a presidential election can be compared to a poker game, Hart had forsaken what looked like a winning hand for the sake of a woman's smile. Who could trust a man so stupid?"

(Lapham's law of scandal seems to be holding true for the latest fall from grace of a television preacher. Stories about the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's sexual behavior are beginning to concentrate on the financial consequences to his $142 million empire.)

Television evangelists in general get short shrift from Lapham who sees broadcast preachers as another variation on the excess profit motive. He is particularly sharp-tongued about former evangelist Pat Robertson, now a Republican candidate for President.

"He's grinding money out of the credulity of people who are poor and frightened," Lapham said. "Then you've got Oral Roberts saying last year, 'God is going to call me back to Heaven'--i.e., 'I'm going to die--unless somebody sends me a few million dollars by next March 1.' These guys are selling snake oil, I think, and that's a great American scam. It's a variation on real estate speculation--selling turf in heaven."

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