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Neal Gabler And How Not To Make It

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Neal Gabler And How Not To Make It

Neal Gabler

Call me unpatriotic, but whenever I hear people prating about the “American Dream” it sets my teeth on edge. The thing about dreams, see, is that they’re imaginary. A figment of your imagination.

So you have a dream. Good for you.

I had a dream too. When I was twelve. I was going to be major league pitcher. Over the ensuing years, however, it became gradually apparent that the fastball that wowed them in Little League might not carry me to World Series stardom.

To me, that’s one of the big lessons of sports: realism. How good you are, how good you’re not. How to deal with it.

It’s when people bring unfettered illusions into the economic and political realm, however, that the trouble starts. One such example is a provocative essay in the May issue of The Atlantic by Neal Gabler.

Despite five well-received books and hundreds of magazine articles in all the prestigious places, Gabler finds himself at age 66 dead broke — ducking creditors, driving a 19 year-old junker, in thrall to the IRS and having to borrow money from his adult daughters to pay the heating bill.

“Financial impotence,” he calls it.

While he says he’s not looking for sympathy, Gabler identifies with economically-squeezed Americans who told pollsters for the Federal Reserve Board that they would have to meet a $400 emergency by either borrowing, selling something, or worse.

“Four hundred dollars!” Gabler writes. “Who knew?…Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.”

Well, Mitt Romney knew, if you recall. He expected GOP voters to be angry that a near-majority of Americans didn’t earn enough to pay Federal income taxes (although many end up remitting a greater proportion of their wealth to the government than Romney himself.)

However, Gabler’s point isn’t really political in the electoral sense. He professes concern about the aforementioned “American Dream.” He thinks it’s a pity that only 64 percent in a 2014 New York Times poll professed belief in this phantasm, defined as “that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.”

Actually, no you can’t. And you never could. Respectfully, Gabler appears to have spent too much time on planet Hollywood. He worries that people’s money problems have “perhaps begun to diminish our national spirit. People want to feel, need to feel, that they are advancing in this world. It is what sustains them.”

Some would say that defining the national spirit entirely in material terms can only lead to sorrow. But let’s not get metaphysical in a newspaper column, shall we?

The author of biographies of Walt Disney, Walter Winchell, and Barbra Streisand, Gabler appears to have fallen into what my friend Gwen Moritz aptly defines as “the fatal trap of believing that [he] deserved a lifestyle [he] simply couldn’t afford.”

To somebody like me whose professional career roughly parallels Gabler’s, the man’s personal choices are mind-boggling. As he correctly points out, “writer…is a financially perilous profession.” To keep your head above water, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Without my wife’s steadfastness and hard work, I’d never have made a go of it. But if wealth and status are your primary goals, you’re probably in the wrong game.

Gabler appears to have made one financially ruinous decision after another—hiding the truth from himself and his family with equal facility. Even his confession sometimes conceals as much as it reveals. Moritz says she actually screamed when Gabler mentioned cashing out his retirement account to pay for his daughter’s wedding—this after spending his father’s savings sending his children to costly private colleges. He wanted them to be “winners.”

Me, I was flabbergasted when he mentioned buying a house in East Hampton, L.I. the most exclusive CEO- and celebrity-enclave on the east coast. A visit to the yacht club there could make an ordinary peasant nostalgic for the age of piracy. This two years before selling his family’s Brooklyn co-op. His combined mortgage payments must have rivaled Portugal’s national debt.

Then there was Gabler’s stretching out a lump-sum book advance by failing to pay taxes. Slate’s Helaine Olen says “I don’t believe there are 10 people in the United States who couldn’t tell you that would end badly.”

Equally bewildering is the personal angle. See, when they left the city, Gabler’s wife gave up her career as a film executive. “[W]ith my antediluvian masculine pride at stake, I told her that I could provide for us without her help—another instance of hiding my financial impotence, even from my wife. I kept the books; I kept her in the dark.”

It’s a fascinating confession, but few will find it ultimately persuasive.

American Dream, indeed.

Photo: BillMoyers.com.

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate.

A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows.

Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. Darsan54 April 27, 2016

    Geeeez, how stupid. But Gabler’s not alone. I have relatives in the same situation with far less resources. So much so, their mother worries she won’t leave them enough to provide for them after her death. And they aren’t spoiled millennials, rather in their late 50s who have worked all their lives. I also chose a more “artistic” career, but watched the dollars and took advantage of whatever luck came my way. While not “rich”, I am comfortable, own my own house, six acres in the city and paid for three kids’ college without loans. I didn’t put on airs and lived within my resources.

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  2. Otto T. Goat April 27, 2016

    Liberal status whores deserve no sympathy.

    1. Sand_Cat April 28, 2016

      Neither do “conservative” ones, and there are likely many more of them.

  3. Phil Shaffer April 28, 2016

    His thesis would be much more persuasive if he did not make these stupid decisions (and credit to him for admitting them). I myself am angry that young people have in many instances had to assume unplayable debt to get through school, but in Gabler’s situation, I can only feel that his bad decisions are no fault of mine. I don’t see that he is asking anyone to make him whole, but many in his situation are angry that they missed financial security and appear to want the rest of us to contribute to their bank accounts. I can’t get on board with that.

  4. Theodora30 April 28, 2016

    It infuriates me to hear people say that the Aamerican Dream is to get rich. I have only known a very few people in my 60+ years whose goal was to be rich. Comfortable, secure yes, but not rich. How sad to assume that money and possessions are the ultimate goal for Americans.

  5. CrankyToo April 28, 2016

    If I want to read stories about stupid people, I’ll tune in to the Republican primary race.

  6. WriterGuy10 April 28, 2016

    There are millions of hard-working Americans who have no savings through no fault of their own. Why did The Atlantic focus on a dumb-ass who spent his way into poverty, but who whines he’s just like people struggling on minimum wage?

  7. Ormode April 28, 2016

    Gabler says he lives in East Hampton as a townie, not as a rich visitor. I do wonder if that is a distinction without a difference. The price of every house within miles has been forced up by demand from the rich, forcing service workers to move out of the area. A lot depends on when he bought his house, and whether at that time modest blue-collar houses were still available.

    Then too, many people got rich on Brooklyn real estate. It is very difficult to lose money on a co-op there. If he had sat tight and sold it now, he could get a couple million. But he didn’t know what was going to happen, and was trying to cut costs.

  8. miamisid August 13, 2016

    Is it valid for someone who has spent recklessly and stupidly to suggest he is like people who are in the same financial situation because of health problems or because they were laid from a job and could not find another? I think not. Gabler, by doing so, is offensive. Those who give this man who has lived a profligate life a pass has not thought this thing through.


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