Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives on her campaign plane at Martha’s Vineyard Airport on 20 August 2016. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP
The emails currently roiling the US presidential campaign are part of some unknown digital collection amassed by the troublesome Anthony Weiner, but if your purpose is to understand the clique of people who dominate Washington today, the emails that really matter are the ones being slowly released by WikiLeaks from the hacked account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. They are last week’s scandal in a year running over with scandals, but in truth their significance goes far beyond mere scandal: they are a window into the soul of the Democratic party and into the dreams and thoughts of the class to whom the party answers.
The class to which I refer is not rising in angry protest; they are by and large pretty satisfied, pretty contented. Nobody takes road trips to exotic West Virginia to see what the members of this class looks like or how they live; on the contrary, they are the ones for whom such stories are written. This bunch doesn’t have to make do with a comb-over TV mountebank for a leader; for this class, the choices are always pretty good, and this year they happen to be excellent.
They are the comfortable and well-educated mainstay of our modern Democratic party. They are also the grandees of our national media; the architects of our software; the designers of our streets; the high officials of our banking system; the authors of just about every plan to fix social security or fine-tune the Middle East with precision droning. They are, they think, not a class at all but rather the enlightened ones, the people who must be answered to but who need never explain themselves.‘We learned to fight back’: Dreamers campaign against Donald Trump
Let us turn the magnifying glass on them for a change, by sorting through the hacked personal emails of John Podesta, who has been a Washington power broker for decades. I admit that I feel uncomfortable digging through this hoard; stealing someone’s email is a crime, after all, and it is outrageous that people’s personal information has been exposed, since WikiLeaks doesn’t seem to have redacted the emails in any way. There is also the issue of authenticity to contend with: we don’t know absolutely and for sure that these emails were not tampered with by whoever stole them from John Podesta. The supposed authors of the messages are refusing to confirm or deny their authenticity, and though they seem to be real, there is a small possibility they aren’t.
With all that taken into consideration, I think the WikiLeaks releases furnish us with an opportunity to observe the upper reaches of the American status hierarchy in all its righteousness and majesty.
The dramatis personae of the liberal class are all present in this amazing body of work: financial innovators. High-achieving colleagues attempting to get jobs for their high-achieving children. Foundation executives doing fine and noble things. Prizes, of course, and high academic achievement.
Certain industries loom large and virtuous here. Hillary’s ingratiating speeches to Wall Street are well known of course, but what is remarkable is that, in the party of Jackson and Bryan and Roosevelt, smiling financiers now seem to stand on every corner, constantly proffering advice about this and that. In one now-famous email chain, for example, the reader can watch current US trade representative Michael Froman, writing from a Citibank email address in 2008, appear to name President Obama’s cabinet even before the great hope-and-change election was decided (incidentally, an important clue to understanding why that greatest of zombie banks was never put out of its misery).
The far-sighted innovators of Silicon Valley are also here in force, interacting all the time with the leaders of the party of the people. We watch as Podesta appears to email Sheryl Sandberg. He makes plans to visit Mark Zuckerberg (who, according to one missive, wants to “learn more about next steps for his philanthropy and social action”). Podesta exchanges emails with an entrepreneur about an ugly race now unfolding for Silicon Valley’s seat in Congress; this man, in turn, appears to forward to Podesta the remarks of yet another Silicon Valley grandee, who complains that one of the Democratic combatants in that fight was criticizing billionaires who give to Democrats. Specifically, the miscreant Dem in question was said to be:
“… spinning (and attacking) donors who have supported Democrats. John Arnold and Marc Leder have both given to Cory Booker, Joe Kennedy, and others. He is also attacking every billionaire that donates to [Congressional candidate] Ro [Khanna], many whom support other Democrats as well.”
Attacking billionaires! In the year 2015! It was, one of the correspondents appears to write, “madness and political malpractice of the party to allow this to continue”.
There are wonderful things to be found in this treasure trove when you search the gilded words “Davos” or “Tahoe”. But it is when you search “Vineyard” on the WikiLeaks dump that you realize these people truly inhabit a different world from the rest of us. By “vineyard”, of course, they mean Martha’s Vineyard, the ritzy vacation resort island off the coast of Massachusetts where presidents Clinton and Obama spent most of their summer vacations. The Vineyard is a place for the very, very rich to unwind, yes, but as we learn from these emails, it is also a place of high idealism; a land of enlightened liberal commitment far beyond anything ordinary citizens can ever achieve.
Consider, for example, the 2015 email from a foundation executive to a retired mortgage banker (who then seems to have forwarded the note on to Podesta, and thus into history) expressing concern that “Hillary’s image is being torn apart in the media and there’s not enough effective push back”. The public eavesdrops as yet another financier invites Podesta to a dinner featuring “food produced exclusively by the island’s farmers and fishermen which will be matched with specially selected wines”. We learn how a Hillary campaign aide recommended that a policy statement appear on a certain day so that “It wont get in the way of any other news we are trying to make – but far enough ahead of Hamptons and Vineyard money events”. We even read the pleadings of a man who wants to be invited to a state dinner at the White House and who offers, as one of several exhibits in his favor, the fact that he “joined the DSCC Majority Trust in Martha’s Vineyard (contributing over $32,400 to Democratic senators) in July 2014”.How does the US electoral college work?
(Hilariously, in another email chain, the Clinton team appears to scheme to “hit” Bernie Sanders for attending “DSCC retreats on Martha’s Vineyard with lobbyists”.)
Then there is the apparent nepotism, the dozens if not hundreds of mundane emails in which petitioners for this or that plum Washington job or high-profile academic appointment politely appeal to Podesta – the ward-heeler of the meritocratic elite – for a solicitous word whispered in the ear of a powerful crony.
This genre of Podesta email, in which people try to arrange jobs for themselves or their kids, points us toward the most fundamental thing we know about the people at the top of this class: their loyalty to one another and the way it overrides everything else. Of course Hillary Clinton staffed her state department with investment bankers and then did speaking engagements for investment banks as soon as she was done at the state department. Of course she appears to think that any kind of bank reform should “come from the industry itself”. And of course no elite bankers were ever prosecuted by the Obama administration. Read these emails and you understand, with a start, that the people at the top tier of American life all know each other. They are all engaged in promoting one another’s careers, constantly.
Everything blurs into everything else in this world. The state department, the banks, Silicon Valley, the nonprofits, the “Global CEO Advisory Firm” that appears to have solicited donations for the Clinton Foundation. Executives here go from foundation to government to thinktank to startup. There are honors. Venture capital. Foundation grants. Endowed chairs. Advanced degrees. For them the door revolves. The friends all succeed. They break every boundary.
But the One Big Boundary remains. Yes, it’s all supposed to be a meritocracy. But if you aren’t part of this happy, prosperous in-group – if you don’t have John Podesta’s email address – you’re out.