The Stylishness of Democrats Courting Young Multi-Billionaires

A glowing account from the New York Times as kids of the mega-rich visit the White House
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There are Americans so wealthy that their children stand to inherit billions of dollars. Think of those kids and their power. Now imagine if the Obama Administration invited them to the White House: 100 fantastically rich heirs to massive fortunes. That would be news, right? 

Sure enough, the New York Times covered it. What I find bizarre are the decisions the newspaper made in its coverage. The article appeared in the Style Section, on page 8. Its headline: "Including the Young and the Rich." Here's how it begins:

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.

A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’ ”

Justin McAuliffe, a 24-year-old heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was similarly impressed by the crowd. “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson,” he said. “That is cool.”

By golly. If only we'd have thought to connect multi-billionaires to one another and to political elites before, we'd probably have already beat human trafficking. How selfless of everyone involved to take time out of their schedules for networking that will redound to the benefit of sex slaves more than anything else.

Subtract the sarcasm from the last paragraph and you have the overall approach to this article:

The daylong conference was organized by Thomas Kalil, a deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the help of Nexus, a youth organization based in Washington that seeks to “catalyze” the next generation of billionaire philanthropists and other stakeholders.

Mr. Kalil moved nimbly among the affluent participants and through the ornate halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the summit was held. “A lot of this is not just, you know, collaborations between the administration and philanthropists,” he said, “but philanthropists finding each other, finding other philanthropists with shared interests.”

Hope. Change. And helping heirs to billion-dollar fortunes to find one another, and one another's shared interests, on federal property. I don't mean to imply that the heirs who attended behaved nefariously, or that I don't understand why the Democratic Party would want to court them. What galls me is a newspaper treating this great meeting of power as if there are no mercenary motives or problematic consequences.  

The story borrows the language of objective journalism to tell us that not only was this networking event a portent of great things to come—it also came at the optimal time!

Policy experts and donors recognize that there’s no better time than now to empower young philanthropists. Professionals in the field, citing an Accenture report from 2012, estimate that more than $30 trillion in wealth will pass from baby boomers to younger generations by around 2050. At the same time, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (no relation to this reporter) and the nonprofit consulting group 21/64 have concluded in a recent study on philanthropic giving that heirs are becoming involved in family foundations at an earlier age—specifically in their 20s and 30s—and imprinting them with the social values of their generation. [emphasis added]

That is thin evidence for a sweeping characterization. What if I argued that a better time to empower young philanthropists would have been during the Great Depression, when America's need for their private wealth was much greater? Would the author protest that, having done the historical research necessary to make claims about there being no better time than now, I am wrong? I somehow doubt it. 

Let's meet one of these philanthropists: 

A case in point is Zac Russell, an eloquent 26-year-old whose grandfather made a fortune with the asset management firm Russell Investments and who officially joined the board of the Russell Family Foundation last year. While not an ardent supporter of the Obama administration, he decided to attend the conference to consult, he said, with White House experts on climate change and to discuss grass-roots efforts to improve water quality in Puget Sound, where the foundation is based.

“It’s not just seen as some old guy writing checks anymore,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s young people who want to solve real problems.”

Sporting scraggy Brooklyn-style facial hair and a loosely fitting suit without a necktie that contrasted with the stately White House surroundings, Mr. Russell spoke with an air of cynicism. “Their head of public affairs contacted me and said, ‘Let’s talk,’ and so we’ll talk,” he said.

If the young man is eloquent, why use those quotes? The surfeit of positive adjectives in this story made it all the easier for me to zero in on this journalistic disclosure:

(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)

That could have made for an interesting first-person reflection on the event. It makes no sense for someone with that conflict of interest to write a third-person reported piece. And it makes no sense to report on this event without exploring the insidious connections between wealth and politics in America and the questions raised when the executive branch goes out of its way to court the next generation of billionaires.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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