“When was the last time we were asked to make a shared sacrifice?” exclaimed Peter G. Peterson, co-founder and chairman emeritus of The Blackstone Group and founder and chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, at a book talk at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday. “What happened to the culture and ethics of the country?” he asked, referring to the financial short-sightedness and the pervasive greed he sees permeating the nation today. Peterson warned that, “unless we get our act together, the future of the American dream is indeed in peril.”
Growing up the son of Greek immigrants, the self-made billionaire is nothing if not familiar with the pursuit of the American dream. From the Greek Midwest diner his parents owned to the highest levels of government, Peterson’s life is a lesson in success.
Discussing his new book, The Education of an American Dreamer, in front of an audience that included Alan Greenspan, journalist Michael Kinsley, and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Peterson detailed his years at the White House as assistant to the president for international affairs and as secretary of commerce. Referring to President Nixon as “paranoid” and a “misanthrope” with “low self-esteem,” Peterson claimed the then-president had a “man-crush” on John Bowden Connally, then-secretary of the Treasury. “It was stunning what Connally could talk Nixon into,” he said. Peterson also described the moment Nixon fired half of his Cabinet: “It was as though he needed new enemies, so he turned on his own.”
The dialogue went on to cover Peterson’s feelings about health care reform (“We have red states and blue states, but I don’t think we have bad prostate states and bad back states”)—which he thinks needs a bipartisan commission to resolve—and his recollections of his years as chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and its “almost carnivorous” culture, Peterson was also personal and reflective. He talked about his own battles with depression and how unprepared he was for leaving a fast-paced life, calling for an “aging management” course. In the end, Peterson summed up his goals for his own final act by quoting philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”