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Leona Helmsley, who died yesterday, was perfectly in sync with her times. So was her developer husband Harry Helmsley, who, as Gail Collins reports, once answered her question about whether he might devote his later life to good deeds by asking ““What the hell would I want to do that for?” For you kids out there, Leona and Harry ruled during the Eighties, which was the decade of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” Michael Milken and Madonna in her incarnation as the Material Girl. One terrifically popular movie was “Wall Street”, in which Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good.” During that time, I was a busy but financially struggling young musician. Everyone seemed to be more successful. I wrote a song about it, called “Downwardly Mobile”:

Some folks is on the fast track
I’m still tying my running shoes
Everybody’s got a piece of the good life
I just got the blues
I’m downwardly mobile…

© 1987 all rights reserved

Self-indulgent? Absolutely but then, so was the era, which begs the question: has anything changed? I mean, today we lust after excess even as we pretend to condemn it, whether it’s our obsession with minor talents masquerading as major celebrities, our quest for the next new must-have gadget, or our race to be or have the biggest, best, most winning whatever. Not only does it seem as if “everyone’s a critic” but also a pundit, a taste-maker, an analyst, a producer, a writer, a director, a star. This is, I suppose, the consequence of a truly democratic society. And given how worried Americans seem to be about nearly everything despite our relative good fortune, a little confidence is probably a helpful counterbalance. There does seem to be more interest in politics, in process, in the world at large and in some long-suffering places in particular. The rich are attracting attention to their causes, whether they concern the environment, abused animals or victims of starvation, genocide and natural disasters. Our candidates are more knowledgeable; this time around they seem to know not only the names of the world leaders with whom they interact but also the longitude and latitude of certain regions in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq. In fact, even though we apparently still need to keep up with the Jones (or the Vinjays or the Ramirezs), we also seem to recognize that there’s an entire world out there. That’s a hopeful sign, as is the fact that shoulder pads have not made a comeback.

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