It was the Twenty-Fifth Annual Banquet of the Golden Plate in Washington, DC, sponsored by the business-backed American Academy of Achievement on June 26, 1986. It was invited to attend by William McGowan, CEO of the MCI Company and wondered: “Could this be his wry retaliation for the chapter we wrote on his corporate career in our new book, “The Big Boys?” After all, a sweltering, crowded banquet room at the J.W. Marriott’s Hotel full of achievers and 390 high school student achievers mutually admiring each other could be a heavy-lidded way to spend an evening.
Well, it was a highly sugary four hour exchange of admiration. But it was also a rare opportunity to watch 3 dozen heavyweight scientists, artists, business executives, athletes and writers take about four minutes each to give advice to the youngsters. Many of these people were pioneers and naysayers in their fields of expertise; none were shrinking violets. Yet almost all were prisoners of the event and the ideological situation whose pressure compelled them to conform.
The most prevalent theme of their remarks was to tell the students how to make it, to go for it, to rise to the top of their chosen careers. Fair enough, boosterism hung from the ceilings like heavy moss and the awesome collective ego of the scene was tempered, so it appeared, by their thanks to America. The three dozen made much of their humble beginnings, their starting from scratch.
The first award recipient, Mohammed Ali, reminded the audience never to forget where they came from. Steven Spielberg told a story about how he overcame being a flincher, as a boy, by lying on his bed and squirting a water pistol at the ceiling until water drops starting falling down on his face. Loretta Lynn didn’t have to mention she was a coal miner’s daughter. The message was that anyone can make it in American if they put together the traits of defining their goals, working hard and persisting. This symphony of exhortation was broken by Nobel Prize Winning, Physicist, Isidor Rabi, who told the youngsters: “the most important thing in life is to be lucky.” Other scientists stressed the need for curiosity and rationality over emotion.
Business executives spoke of the virtues of honest, tenacity, humility, hard effort and the freedom to choose your career. William Simon, zillionaire and former U.S. Treasury Secretary, commenting on a prior speaker’s urgings that young women should study mathematics, said “Women and math don’t mix — you should see my wife’s checkbook.” Even the bejeweled wives and their prosperous husbands booed and hissed.
Donald Petersen, CEO of the Ford Motor Company, was overwhelmed with his award and asked “Why me?” As he came off the dais greeted him with the answer: “Air bags.” He smiled, knowing that Ford is the only U.S. manufacturer presently offering driver-side air bags as options — only on Tempo and Topaz models.
All in all, it was an evening of self-indulgence, emitting all too much the narcissistic culture of the me generation. There was hardly a word of the need for those talented youngsters to pursue a path of caring for others less fortunate. The problems of country and world — poverty, disease, hunger, war — were not portrayed as major objects for their talents to confront. No mention was made of America’s unfinished business, of the misdistribution of power, of the careening course of the economy that is piling up more poverty and unemployment statistics.
The speakers massaged the students and tried to inspire them to self-fulfillment. They had advice, slogans and metaphors but precious little wisdom. “Success” was defined in dollars instead of service or quality. Scientists spoke of benefits, never risks. Businessmen spoke of winning, not of the corporate ethics crisis or the stagnating economy’s speculative binge in asset shuffling. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral, William J. Crowe, Jr., spoke of living a career that would make your home town proud to welcome you back. Nary a reference was there to the challenge of arms control in a nuclear weapons-racing world.
It is not that these men and women of stature were unknowing of such problems waiting for the new generation’s so-called best and brightest. It is not that the adult achievers were unmindful that 390 youngsters had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and hear their concerns of a lifetime rather than their exhortations of the moment. It is that the hoopla of these years of Reagan and his Miller-time politics has made realism and candor out of fashion. It is so much easier to cheer and wave the flag while the Earth boils.