Eliot Rosewater for President, or, Nimium capto aut ut omnino nihil | Phillips on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Sarah Phillips


Kurt Vonnegut was a prophet, albeit a satiric and stridently earthly one. Vonnegut’s 1965 book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or Pearls before Swine diagnosed and warned us about the growing problems that got us where we are today. Those problems were (and are) unfettered free market capitalism, run-away greed, income and wealth inequality, and media-palooza.1 I call where we are today Trump-ageddon. You can call it what you like.

The key moral issue that Vonnegut tackled in Rosewater was wealth inequality, already becoming a defining American virtue (vice!) as Vonnegut was writing Rosewater. Wealth inequality has only grown during subsequent decades. According to UC Berkeley economists, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent families in the US has grown regularly since the late 1970s, reaching 42 percent in 2012. Most of this increase is driven by the top 0.1 percent, whose wealth share grew from 7 percent in 1978 to 22 percent in 2012.2

The Rosewater family is Vonnegut’s caricature of the top 0.1 percent. Before 1947, the fictional, but still representative Rosewater fortune (note that the surname combines “Roosevelt” and “Goldwater”), was the fourteenth-largest family fortune in America. In that year, the Rosewater fortune was “stashed into a foundation in order that tax-collectors and other predators not named Rosewater might be prevented from getting their hands on it” (1). By June 1, 1964, the foundation account (which, mind you, did not include the entire Rosewater fortune) came to some $87 million (1). Today in 2017, that $87 million would have economic power totaling approximately $2.4 billion. This is by no means a valid or even halfway-scientific comparison, but it’s still interesting to note that, when adjusted to 2017 numbers, the (I know, fictional) Rosewater fortune wouldn’t even come close to the fourteenth-largest fortune in America today.3 That rank is held by our friend Sheldon Adelson, worth about $31.8 billion. Adelson, of course, made his fortune in the Las Vegas casino business (can you call it a business?). Sounds like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. My point is that Vonnegut bigly4 low-balled what it would take to get into the top 0.1 percent by 2017. Things would get worse than he thought, and that’s pretty darn bad.

In 1965, Vonnegut contrasted the Rosewaters and their fortune, and the fortune-ate lives of other entitled families in the book (e.g., the Buntlines, 163–71), with the “poor people” who make up most of humanity (the 99–99.9 percent). Full of guilt at his own elevated financial status, which bought him power, Eliot Rosewater showered his kindness and his money on the working class, those multitudes of “useless,” “unattractive,” and “discarded Americans” (44). Vonnegut described wealth inequality in evocative aquatic terms that I can’t help but reproduce here:

We now come to a supremely ironic moment in history, for Senator Rosewater of Indiana now asks his own son, “Are you or have you ever been a communist?”

“Oh, I have what a lot of people would probably call communistic thoughts,” said Eliot artlessly, “but for heaven’s sakes, Father, nobody can work with the poor and not fall over Karl Marx from time to time—or just fall over the Bible, as far as it goes. I think it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. I think it’s a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. Life is hard enough, without people having to worry themselves sick about money, too. There’s plenty for everybody in this country, if we’ll only share more.”

“And just what do you think that would do to incentive?”

“You mean fright about not getting enough to eat, about not being able to pay the doctor, about not being able to give your family nice clothes, a safe, cheerful, comfortable place to live, a decent education, and a few good times? You mean shame about not knowing where the Money River is?”

“The what?”

“The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it—and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently.”

“Slurping lessons?”

“From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers’ men! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw.” (121–2)

When Senator Rosewater protests, vowing that all that’s needed is “hard work,” and “it’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own,” (123), Eliot responds:

Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. (124)


Lanky thirteen-year-old Lila Buntline enters stage left. She is wearing a black leotard, a kelly-green satin jacket with tails and matching cummerbund, black fishnet stockings, high-heeled strappy dance shoes, and a green sequined top hat. As her “perfectly beautiful green eyes” (150) shine, Lila sings at the top of her mighty lungs to the tune of “Moon River:”

“Money River, wider than a mile,

gee you make me smile, all day!

You dream maker, you ball breaker,

move over, Rosewater, I’m coming your way!

Screw the grifters, their swines ain’t even pearled,

they give their dough away, for free . . .

The pot’s never at the rainbow’s end,

Find a bucket round the bend,

Start slurpin’ up, my friend,

Money River, and me . . .”

Enter thirty-five-year-old Ivanka Trump stage right. She is wearing an Ivanka Trump Floral-Print Fit and Flare Dress, Ivanka Trump Liah Slingback Block-Heel Pumps, and a Carolina Herrera silk neckerchief. With her chestnut eyes flashing, Ivana screams at the top of her mighty lungs:

“Shut up! Stop spilling our secrets! Grab too much, or you’ll get nothing at all!” (10)

End Intermission.

I admit to sharing Eliot Rosewater’s “communistic” thoughts (121). (I even occasionally “fall over the Bible, as far as that goes” (121), but that’s for another post.) I even share these “communistic” thoughts with my undergraduate students at Indiana University, which is to say: I encourage students to think critically about inequality, including class inequality. I urge students to identify and excavate the inequities of class, gender, ethnicity, dis/ability, immigration/citizenship status, health care, and so on that may be invisible to those in the IU bubble but which exist and touch their lives nonetheless. I try not to sound like a socialist. I limit direct references to Karl Marx. Karl Marx can make Indiana students uncomfortable. It occurs to me that instead of teaching Marx, maybe I can just teach Rosewater.

Vonnegut’s biographer, Charles Shields, points out that God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater offers three major messages that run through nearly all of Vonnegut’s writing.5 Here are the messages:

  1. The virtue and efficacy of kindness. If people would just be kind to one another, most of the world’s problems big and small could be solved. The more things and wealth and influence people acquire, and the higher they climb in the “savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system” (9), the less they listen to their conscience and its demand for unselfish acts (e.g., kindness) (52). Indeed “a normal person, functioning well on the upper levels of a prosperous, industrialized society, can hardly hear his [sic] conscience at all” (54). We need a new normal. We need kindness.
  2. Every person possesses inherent dignity because every person is a human being. People are entitled to respect and a recognition of their shared humanity. Eliot Rosewater (and Vonnegut) refuse to believe that any human being is “useless.” They resist the notion (also explored in Player Piano) that “in time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas” (264). I think Vonnegut’s traumatic wartime experiences probably solidified for him this belief in the inherent dignity of persons as human beings. We’ll see what Slaughterhouse-Five has to say about that.
  3. People need community. Shields focuses on Vonnegut’s sense of community “as an antidote to loneliness or hopelessness” (184). I think Vonnegut also values community as an avenue for practicing a sort of active selflessness. Making community is a tangible expression of messages #1 and #2 above—kindness and shared humanity. The expression of community that gets the most copy in Rosewater is volunteer firefighting brigades. Eliot Rosewater idolizes volunteer fire departments as a supremely “humane thing,” “the salt of the earth,” “what’s good about America” (24–5). He expects volunteer firemen to lead a revolution in about twenty years (38).

Well, my friends, that revolution is well past due. In my Monday morning class at Indiana University, here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll teach Rosewater—Kindness! Dignity! Community! My students and I will all join the Indiana Volunteer Firefighter’s Association. (Looks like we’ll have to go to Carthage, or Nineveh, or Lebanon, or Monrovia, Indiana—Bloomington doesn’t take volunteers.) We will commandeer fire trucks and drive to the mighty Money River. We’ll pump that money-water out and squirt it equitably all over the state of Indiana. Hell, we’ll squirt it across the entire country. And nobody will slurp too much.


1. Vonnegut’s treatment of the press, e.g., the American Investigator, “The World’s Most Sparkling Newspaper” (135), was especially prophetic, and provides fodder for a completely separate blog post on media-palooza and “fake news!”

2. Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 131, no. 2 (May 2016), http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/SaezZucman2016QJE.pdf

3. Donald Trump comes in with $3.7 billion at just #156 in the 2016 Forbes list of 400 richest Americans. He’s tied with Steven Spielberg and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. Sad! https://www.forbes.com/forbes-400/list/4/#version:static

4. I’m sorry.

5. Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), 183–5.