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Will George Bush Ever Escape WASP Image?

November 11, 1988|HENRY ALLEN | The Washington Post

Once in a while, some white knight arises in America to save the WASPs from their despair, but he gets hammered on till even his friends laugh at him--one thinks of Elliot Richardson running for the Senate, Endicott (Chub) Peabody losing elections in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and John Lindsay as mayor of New York.

There was a day when the WASPs ruled, and everybody else was the exception that proved their entitlement. But for the last century they have been slinking back into a kind of seedy twilight like another American archetype, the Indians, until they exist largely as a collection of legends--"The Great Gatsby," the old-boy founders of the CIA, Skull and Bones, the Lodges speaking only to the Cabots--along with best-selling exploitations such as "The Official Preppy Handbook" and pathetic souvenir stands such as Ralph Lauren's Polo stores.

You knew this. Why bring it up again? Who cares except maudlin prep school boys who didn't get into Yale?

The Fall Guy

George Bush cares. George Bush is a WASP. The President-elect is a member of the last ethnic group in America that can be publicly scorned, stereotyped, mythologized and envied. And as his brutal but triumphant campaign against Michael Dukakis, an ethnic immigrant, showed, WASPs still can be fair game, the fall guy.

They have been exempted from the prudery we exercise around minorities. We don't even think about WASPs as a minority, although they constitute less than a quarter of the population, and in the 1980 census had median incomes below those of households whose heads were Japanese, Filipino, Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific Islander, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Korean, German, Irish and Aleut. No one worries about offending WASP ethnic sensitivities. The cliches of the WASP live on.

"The MacNeil/Lehrer News-Hour": "Upper-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs--and that's what George Herbert Walker Bush, a graduate of Andover and Yale, most emphatically is. So what happens? Bush (has been) lampooned as the ultimate Ivy League preppie whose favorite drink is probably Perrier Lite and whose idea of soul food is quiche."

On and on, smoldering in a sort of dump fire of the American soul, fueled by historic grudges--of Catholics against Protestants, Western farmers against Eastern money men, one side of the tracks against the other, immigrants against Brahmins, the valley against the hill, Southerners against Yankees.

Bush speech writer Peggy Noonan: "We all play our ethnic group and wear our affiliation; but how do you wear true-blue WASP in the new America? With a kind of wry awkwardness, it seems."


Envy is a complicated business, the hatred of something you want, the resentment of something you admire. And not only have non-WASP Americans envied WASPs, but the WASPs have pulled off the neat trick of seeming to envy themselves, feeding as they do on the New England boiled dinner of both self-loathing and smugness.

Great Prep Schools

In a short story called "Winter Dreams," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "He knew the sort of men they were--the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger. Yet in acknowledging to himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang."

Very complicated. To start with, the acronym WASP makes no sense. It is redundant--most Anglo-Saxons are Protestant and all are white, but logic has been overridden by the piquancy of a hint at petulant insect violence. It also appeals to the same sort of sloth that has us categorize people by their handwriting or astrological sign. And it provides a cop-out for Americans who would rather blame our troubles on ethnicity than on class. Talking about class smacks of Marxism, for one thing, and it goes against the strange but popular belief that America is a classless society.

Hence the usefulness of an acronym such as WASP, which uses ethnic and religious terms to describe what most people think of as a segment of the upper classes. (Lower-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestants aren't called WASPs. They are called hillbillies, crackers, swamp Yankees, white trash or the popular "redneck," as Randall Robinson, leader of American anti-apartheid protests, referred to presidential candidate Pat Robertson earlier this year.)

The acronym didn't even come into common circulation until the 1960s, when a sociologist named E. Digby Baltzell, at the University of Pennsylvania, picked it up in his book "The Protestant Establishment."

However, if we define WASPs as a ruling Establishment, a majority or a rich minority, they don't have much to do with the real white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in America.

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