Ned Barnett

Grounding the American dream

Before they first got their airplane into the air, the Wright brothers spent time at Kitty Hawk studying how seabirds soared on the wind.

At times, and much to the bafflement of local fishermen and the few others in that then-remote place, the two men from Dayton, Ohio, would stand on the beach and extend their arms to mimic how the big birds could ride the wind and change direction without flapping their wings.

That image was drawn last week by David McCullough, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author who spoke in Raleigh about his latest book, “The Wright Brothers.” McCullough described the pair with such familiarity and warmth that, by the time he finished at the Fletcher Theater, he virtually had Orville and Wilbur on stage with him.

After years of immersion in the lives of the brothers, McCullough said he was as impressed by their character as he was by their achievement. They were raised in a home without plumbing, though full of books. They didn’t go to college. They were modest, polite and unassuming, even after success brought them fame and wealth.

In the Wright brothers, McCullough said he was surprised to find people so similar to the subject of one of his earlier books, President Harry Truman. He noted that the three men were Midwesterners of strong character. They endured repeated failures but persevered. They were Americans who did not measure success by amassing wealth, but by the satisfaction of achieving a goal and realizing their full potential.

McCullough spoke briefly of Truman’s humility and his commitment to truth and democracy. He said Truman left the White House and went back to Independence, Mo., with no means of support other than his Army pension. Yet, McCullough noted pointedly, Truman never gave a speech for pay and he worried about the future of democracy when he heard John F. Kennedy was raising funds with a $1,000-per-plate dinner.

McCullough wondered aloud what Truman would think of today’s former office holders on the speech circuit and candidates courting billionaires. The audience laughed, but the contrast between then and now is discouraging. In that space between the Wright brothers and Truman and today, it was clear how far the nation has drifted from its expectation of decency in its politics and its commitment to average Americans.

On the day McCullough spoke, the Clinton Foundation, the philanthropic effort led by Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, disclosed that the three Clintons had generated at least $12 million for the foundation by giving speeches. The news came on top of a disclosure by Hillary Clinton the previous week that she and her husband have earned $25 million from speeches since 2014. Bill Clinton, personally, has made more than $104 million from speeches since he left the White House. In 2012, during Hillary Clinton’s last year as Secretary of State, the former president earned more than $16.3 million for 72 speeches.

What would Truman think? I'd like to think he’d give ‘em hell. But he might be too stunned to speak. The amounts are mind-boggling. And the conflicts of interest seem as large as the paychecks. Yet Hillary Clinton is likely to be candidate of a party that advocates on behalf of the poor and the struggling middle class.

Open attempts to purchase political influence are a symptom of the nation’s new Gilded Age in which top incomes have ballooned while working Americans have endured unemployment, underemployment and stagnant wages. The average CEO now makes 204 times the amount paid the average rank and file worker, an increase of 20 percent since 2009. The New York Times last week published a list of the nation’s 200 highest-paid chief executives in 2014. It starts with David M. Zaslav of Discovery Communications at $156 million and ends with Christopher M. Crane of Exelon who made $12.6 million.

The rise of inequality is building walls around great cities where Americans of all incomes used to live. Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have become too expensive for middle-income Americans. A penthouse in New York sold this year for $100.4 million, a record for a single residence. A January report said it takes an income of $108,000 to live comfortably in the nation’s capital. In San Francisco, the average rent is $3,458.

And in Kitty Hawk, near the beach where two bicycle shop owners got their $1,000 contraption to fly, an oceanfront home starts at $500,000 and some are near $3 million.

The Wright brothers and Truman were Americans of ordinary means who nonetheless had enough to pursue their ambitions and take to the air or rise to the highest office. It’s becoming much harder for average Americans to be bold in a nation of serfs and kings. Now the nation needs a new breed of inventive and visionary leaders determined to get the American dream off the ground again.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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