How It Made America, and How It Can

Save It, So to Speak

By Richard Brookhiser

Free Press/Macmillan. 171 pp. $19.95

THE PROBLEM for anyone writing about the influence of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in the United States is that it's already been done, definitively and conclusively. Just as Flannery O'Connor famously said of southern writers -- "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down" -- so is the would-be chronicler of WASPdom confronted with the daunting presence of E. Digby Baltzell and his pathfinding study, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America.

This is the presence that Richard Brookhiser faced in attempting to track what he calls "the way of the WASP," and this is the presence that in the end defeats him. His slender book is an attempt not merely to identify the character traits and traditions of the WASP, at which Brookhiser is fairly successful, but also to assess what has become of the WASP and how he might be resurrected to the general good, at which he is not. Of all the problems Brookhiser faces and fails to overcome, perhaps the greatest is that in trying to distance himself from Baltzell -- to chart some original territory of his own -- he undermines the central assumption on which any analysis of the WASP must be based.

This is that, as Baltzell put it, WASP is defined as a "class of Protestant patricians." This definition is tempered and hedged in any number of ways to accommodate the seemingly irreconcilable opposites of democracy and aristocracy, not to mention the careful distinctions Baltzell draws between "elite" and "aristocratic," but the notion of elitism is nevertheless essential to it. Since its earliest European settlement America has been much populated by people who are white and Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but only a relatively small percentage of these are WASPs because only a few are "born to positions of high prestige and assured dignity" and thus become "carriers of a set of traditional values which command authority because they represent the aspirations of both the elite and the rest of the population."

Brookhiser gets this last part of the definition right, when he discusses what he calls the traits of "the basic WASP character," but he gets it all wrong when he writes: "The first definition to make . . . is that the word WASP includes all of WASPdom: the whole loaf, not just the upper crust. We want to understand people in Akron and Arkansas, not just Andover; United Methodists and members of the Church of the Nazarene, not just Episcopalians; people who clip supermarket coupons as well as the ones who clip the coupons of trust funds." It is all very small-d democratic for this to be said by Brookhiser, a speechwriter for George Bush during his vice presidency, but it entirely misses the point: To eliminate considerations of aristocracy and elitism from the WASP is to eviscerate his essential nature.

As one who has somewhat tangled and ambiguous WASP connections, thanks to a bit of blood and a lot of involuntary association, I write this not in pride but in respectful deference to Baltzell, who understood the WASP ethos as well as any writer of nonfiction ever has. WASP doesn't necessarily mean money or power or even position, but it does mean immersion in certain traditions and beliefs and customs that are inextricably bound up in "the way of the WASP." Like it or not -- and many WASPs don't, as witness their life-long rebellions -- WASP does mean Andover and Episcopalianism and Wall Street, and to attempt to define it otherwise is to discuss something entirely different.

Certainly Brookhiser is right when he speaks of the WASP character traits as being conscience, industry, success, civic-mindedness, usefulness and anti-sensuality. Further he is right, if not finally and absolutely so, when he contends: "the WASP character is the American character. It is the mold, the template, the archetype, the set of axes along which the crystal has grown. Without the WASP, it would be another country altogether."

To which he adds: "Without the continuing influence of his values, it is sure to lose its way." We now live, he says, in "the post-WASP world," one in which WASP character traits have been replaced by new ones: self, ambition, gratification, group-mindedness, diffidence, creativity. The old virtues of reticence and civic-mindedness have been replaced by new ones -- though calling them "virtues" is a bit of a stretch -- of "open-ness" and self-gratification. That Brookhiser is right about this should be evident to even the most casual observer of contemporary America; he is no less right when he argues, as in fact Baltzell did as well, that this change is explained at least in part by the retreat of the WASPs into the safety of caste exclusivity as opposed to the positions of elite leadership they once occupied.

So how does Brookhiser believe the WASP character traits are to be restored? His answer is not entirely clear, but he argues that George Bush was elected because "the public had a hope, based in part on what it gathered from his private life, that he could bring WASP virtues to bear" on the country's problems. This is a preposterous argument, though a Bush loyalist can be forgiven for making it. If anything Bush was probably elected despite his WASPiness, despite public apprehension that he is the sort of self-parodying WASP who used to chirp "Tennis anyone?" and who might well, should he enter the White House, become Pwesident Twit.

No, George Bush won't bring back the WASPs. They left a long time ago, retreating into the comforts of the clubs and walled communities where the outer world cannot intrude. They forfeited national leadership, the struggle to assume which is still in its early and uncertain stages. For a keen analysis of that struggle, and of the emergence of the new American establishment, I recommend Robert Christopher's Crashing the Gates, published in 1989; unlike Brookhiser, who in the end is merely sentimental about the WASPs, Christopher has a sense of how the new non-WASP leadership is taking shape and even, mirabile dictu, of how it may be able to preserve the best of the WASP traditions.