Everybody who knows George Gilder tells George Gilder stories: the vanishing bombers, the soup spilled all over Mrs. Rockefeller, the mysteriously reappearing manuscript, the empty throne of Father Divine, the overcoats and cars he has left scattered all over the East Coast, not to mention the appalled and outraged feminists and liberals. . .
And now the subject and object of all these anecdotes has written what bids fair to be one of the bibles of the Reagan administration -- a book called "Wealth and Poverty."
David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, called it "premethean in its intellectual power and insight." He is not only buying the book in bulk to give away, but he recently met personally with Gilder to help prepare for President Reagan's speech tonight on the economy.
Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak recently used the gospel according to Gilder to castigate Reagan for failing to cut taxes enough. William Buckley defers to his ideological purity. News magazines have run stories on the Gilder phenomenon. "Wealth and Poverty" has been through five printings in the last month, after getting big sendoffs from the Sunday book review sections of The Washington Post and The New York Times. After calling him a "crackpot," The New Republic devoted seven pages to the menace of "Gilderland."
"It's amazing," Gilder says, the morning after his meeting with Stockman. He sits in an edgy sprawl in his hotel room, rolling the tip of his necktie up and down, adjusting the position of a lamp across the table until he is staring at his listener with one eye, then back again. "When the chemistry changes, it's amazing what happens. Success is not predictable -- it's providential."
Certainly he's an unlikely prophet. His last book, "Visible Man," sold 578 copies, and two other books on feminism and poverty have won him sizable constituencies of critical contempt. He spent his boyhood in such diverse company as the disciples of Father Divine, the children of the Rockefellers and 100 milk cows on his stepfather's failing farm in Massachusetts. He is stunningly blunt. Asked recently to name a "reasonably intelligent feminist critique" of his work, he replied: "There's no such thing as a reasonably intelligent feminist."
But here he is, being trouted by the conservatives and scouted by the liberals.
Strangest of all, he is not surprised. Success is like most other things in the world as Gilder sees it through his horn-rimmed glasses. "The real world," he calls it, as in: "Economists are in a world of numbers. The real world is one in which will, faith and imagination are more important."
Like many other conservatives, Gilder advocates a reduction in taxes and social services in order to stimulate free enterprise. But he goes beyond most of them in defining our economic woes not a statistical entities but as spiritual ones. He urges a return to the sort of leaps of faith that once had entrepreneurs building railroads into a wildreness where they weren't sure very many people wanted to go.
The real world is Gilder, at least as far as the walls of this hotel room go, is also the mess his friends have been telling stories about for years. Every available horizontal surface bears a liter of newspapers, magazines, a bottle of vitamin C, a pair of running shorts, a book on tax reform, a pin-stripe suit crumpled on the luggage rack, all of it verging on midden heap status after only two days' residence.
"I used to tell him that his room could be an archeological find someday, layer after layer of stuff piled up," says one old friend who shared a Boston apartment with him in the early '70s. This was also the period of the now-legendary episode of absentmindness in which Gilder, an avid runner and track fan, drove to Philadelphia for a track meet, then flew back to Boston. "He got back here and couldn't figure out where his car was," the friend recalls.
"I started wearing socks a couple of years ago, but every time I've had an overcoat I lose it," Gilder says now, acknowledging with some embarrassment the stories that have followed him from his youth in western Massachusetts to Exter to Harvard to speech writing from Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and Robert Dole, among others, to working as an editor at The New Leader, and all the way through his evolution from liberal Republican to a conservative who is somewhere to the right, literally, of Adam Smith.
Smith, the founding father of capitalist economics, could morally justify his child 200 years ago only with the doctrine of "enlightened self-interest." Gilder says no. It's much better than that: Capitalism springs from a basic instinct of altruism.
"These are the fundamental truths of human existence," he says now, sliding that lamp back and forth across the table. He can say things like that and get away with it -- something to do, no doubt, with his New England shabby-gentry boyishness, the kind of jolly innocence that will probably persist until his hair turns white and people refer to him as "spry." Anyhow, the laws: "You have to give in order to get; supply in order to demand. Give and you will be given unto. It's really not pie-in-the-sky because what faith makes possible is works. By any rational calculation, the future is unknown and menacing, but with faith, you are not afraid to take the risks that capitalism depends on."
Capitalism, it might be added, may only be 200 years old, but "it cannot become obsolete or decrepit as long as human societies persist," Gilder says in the book, just under a denunciation of William Buckley, Malcolm Muggeridge and Alexander Solzhenitsyn for their failure to defend, yea, preach capitalism with sufficient fire.
He says these things. He gets away with them.
At the White House, senior policy adviser John McClaughry, an old friend, from the early '60s when Gilder was editing a liberal Republican journal called "Advance," says: "George is so whimsical and good-natured. He delights in contriving an argument to defeat the conventional wisdom. In the beginning, this was an intellectual exercise, but it has led him to some very good work."
In 1974, for instance, he published "Sexual Suicide," an anti-feminist tract that began by conceding claims to female superiority. Gilder went on to document the plight of men in a dirge of statistics demonstrating male misery, madness and misfortune everywhere, thereby undercutting feminist claims of male oppression.
In subsequent books on males an poverty -- "Naked Nomads" and "Visible Man" -- he has been similarly uncowed by conventional wisdoms or proprieties in his search for the facts.
David Rockefeller Jr., when asked for one anecdote that sums up Gilder, says: "Once he was sitting next to my mother at luncheon. Soup was the fist course. It was being served by a waitress. My mother began a conversation about exactly what kind of china it was on the table, and she picked up her plate to look at the bottom of it. So did George, but his soup had already been served and he poured it all over her." The Father Factor
Gilder is the scion of a great old New England family -- his grandfather, Richard Watson Gilder, edited the Century magazine, and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens did a number of busts of family members. He maternal great-grandfather was Lewis Tiffany of the jewelry store, and his father, Richard Gilder, "made an overwhelming impression on those who knew him," Gilder says now. "At Harvard he was head of the editorial board of the Crimson. He was an NCAA squash finalist. He was in the Signet Society. None of these things was I capable of getting in. His focus on graduation was getting the United States to enter World War II. He was the youngest member ever of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the only lieutenant to be the head of a bomber squadron."
But then, when Gilder was 3, and his father was no more to him than the sole memory he has of "a man in a brown suit leaning over in a doorway," the bomber squadron took off from Newfoundland and disappeared utterly; was never heard from again.
"His roommate at Harvard had been. David Rockefeller. They'd made an agreement that if he was killed in the war, David would help oversee my upbringing."
Rockefeller put Gilder through Exeter, "in fairly austere fashion," Gilder says. He finished last in his class. Then Harvard, where he flunked out after one year, joined the Marine Reserves and returned to finish not only a year late, but far behind the model his father had provided.
"I really did have a fatherless family," he says, "and that's been very important. When I read Thomas Pettigrew's book dealing with the fatherless black boy, I said 'Hey, that's me.'"
The fatherless family has been a recurring theme in his work. He believes that feminism and welfare have created more of them, and that this trend could end up destroying us.
It is a belief so important to him that he rejects not only the liberal argument that the war on poverty needed to be fought, but the neo-conservative argument that is has been won. Instead, he says now, "Blacks were making very significant progress until 1964 or '65. The war on poverty halted it in its tracks."
Clearly, his mother could have used more help in raising him. After her husband was killed, she turned a house he'd bought on Manhattan's East 48th Street into a rooming house. She worked as a music teacher, and left the raising of George to the staff, who, as it happened, were all disciples, or "angels" as they were known, of a charismatic black religious leader named "Father Divine."
"They all had named like 'Gratifying Love' and 'Celestial Kindness.' They brought me up. I was very difficult. I was kicked out of the Hamilton School, which was the ultra-progressive school that was satirized in 'Auntie Mame.' If the kids were unhappy they'd teach them to strike, show them how to make placards and all that. I wouldn't go along with any of it, teachers or students. They'd lock me in the bathroom.
"My conversion to Father Divine occurred when one of our angels would pretend to call the police on the telephone, and say 'We've got a very bad little boy over here, you'd better come and take him away.' Then they'd say to me: 'You go to the window and pray to Father Divine.' They told me to pray especially hard when a cop car would come down the street, and since there was a police station nearby, a lot of them did. I'd pray and pray, and sure enough, the car would go on by."
Father Divine is lauded in "Wealth and Poverty" as an example of faith creating life-enchancing works.
Gilder writes: "By 1953, when, unhappily, Divine absconded in ungodly circumstances, his empire embraced 'peace garages,' construction and painting firms, tailors, furriers, hotels and photographic studios, and an employment service for domestic servants. . . . Two of these domestics, Gratifying Love and Ezekiel, once took me, as a boy of 8, to Harlem, to visit the divine sanctum, appointed in ivory and velvet, and I fell to my tremulous knees before His [capitalization Gilder's] then empty throne."
On his knees before the empty throne: Throughout his boyhood he was subjected to praise of his dead father, he recalls. "It was part of a virtually religious experience. When they told me how great he was, I'd look embarrassed. And they'd think I didn't want to hear about him. But in fact, I was embarrassed because I thought I was him. I'm really not exaggerating this sense, which had quite an astonishing confirmation a month ago.
"A month ago, the day after the books of 'Wealth and Poverty' came in, my uncle uncovered a box that contained a 155-page manuscript my father had written that might have been entitled 'Wealth and Poverty.' What I call 'metaphysical capital' he called 'intangible capital.' His attitudes towards Keynes were like mine."
And so, after all the years of failing to meet the marks left by his father, it turned out in some unexplainable way that in fact he was his father, something beyond the powers of the rational mind to explain. Ordinarily, writers of economic bibles for directors of the budget of the United States do not choose to inhabit these shabby suburbs of the intellect. But then, Gilder has never worried about the neighbors, as his friends point out, recommending that he be asked about his experiences with extra-sensory perception.
"ESP is important to me. I learned that it absolutely exists. A roommate and I were sharing an apartment, and another man in the building was a psychic. He taught me how to do it. The single most striking trick I learned how to do was cutting for the queen of spades in a deck of cards. I got so I could do it time after time. Once somebody put two queens in the back, and it fell open to both of them. I had hundreds of experiences of that sort during that period. The trick is that you have to have faith."
Or, as Gilder writes in his book: "Belief precedes knowledge." The Coatless Wonder
With or without benefit of knowledge, belief is subject to interesting changes. In 1966, along with co-author Bruce Chapman, Gilder wrote of Republicans in California: "Here the far right has retained most of its former strength and most of its former illusions. Reality is to be shut out altogether as the GOP eschews the problematical and mentally taxing world of politics for the more glamorous, exhilarating, free-floating world of entertainment. This is the home of the pop-politician, ruggedly handsome, blond, alliterative, Ronald Reagan -- the party's hope to usurp reality with the fading world of the class-B movie."
Now, in a slant of morning light from his hotel-room window, he says that "15 years ago I just said what most people thought about Ronald Reagan."
As he continues to do, but as one of his supporters.
Getting ready to go outside, he bustles around the clutter in an intense, high-shouldered ramble. He's looking for a sweater. Even at his home in Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and two small daughters, he never where he spends two days a week as director of the International Center for Economic Policy Studies. He thinks his wife is plotting to get him a coat, but he seems cheerfully convinced he'll lose it like all the others -- even the one his friend at Harvard chipped in to buy him.
Here in Washington, home of the statistician, hotbed of liberals and bastion of believers that belief does well to be preceded by knowledge, Gilder is an eccentric.
At home in New England, however, he's one of a whole breed of old-time rural, even agricultural intellectuals, the kind of inventors and philosophers who could devote whole lives to what might be hobbies for other people: writing some esoteric biography, or building violas da gamba, say; putting ships of one kind or another into bottles of one kind or another.
The dilemma of this particular tradition, since its blooming in the 19th century, has been: How do you reconcile the world of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism that darkened the skies of New England with the Transcendentalism and idealism that illuminated them?
It is possible that George Gilder, now burrowing around in search of his sweater under the slope-shouldered piles of reading material and clothing, has cut the deck to yet another queen of spades, and put it all together? Or are his converts and supporters falling on tremulous knees before only another empty thone?