High Life

The New Dishonesty of Public Life

September 07, 2012

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The New Dishonesty of Public Life

Forty-five years ago two Greek shipowners and the most famous diva of her time squared off in a British High Court over a financial dispute. Panaghis Vergottis, a gentleman and philanthropist, had sued Aristotle Socrates Onassis and Maria Callas over the ownership of a tanker the two men had bought for la Callas back when they were best friends. I suspect Vergottis had fallen in love with the fiery coloratura, and once Onassis had dropped her for la Kennedy, he tried to move in, unsuccessfully. Then who owned how much of the ship came up, and it ended up in a High Court.

The headlines back then were bigger than the ones covering the two Russian creeps last week. But there were no theatrics. Onassis, the winner, made a brief, dignified statement outside the court saying how sad it was to face a once great friend in a court action. End of story. Callas got her tanker, Onassis was saddled with Jackie and her bills, and Vergottis went back to building villages and museums in Cephalonia.

“The reason Saudis and Qataris never tell the truth is because their beards would fall out.”

Compare this with the losing clown Berezovsky, his broken English, his ghastly looks, and the fact the judge called his testimony inherently dishonest. The latter word never appeared when the two Greek tycoons clashed. Not so when the two Russki oligarchs squared off. Although I’m no admirer of Roman Abramovich—far from it, in fact—the former toy-duck salesman did not show off and swagger after his victory. Not bothering to show up was the perfect answer to Berezovsky: You’re too much of a small fry for me to bother. Ouch!

An American newspaper report described the loser as an ex-academic. I wonder what subject he taught—honesty? Both oligarchs look and smell to me something awful. Sitting on a boat planning whom to bribe back home must be as sleazy as it gets, but that’s the modern world. The two Greeks sat on a boat planning how to help Callas once her career was over. The two Russians planned how to rob a country blind, and they succeeded—all within the law, that is. Some country. Some oligarchs.

Just as the decision came down I was watching Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Parade’s End. The hero muses sadly about the new dishonesty of public life, the pigs at the trough, but imagine if he was around today. One needs the virginal innocence of a Carmelite nun to take any Russian—or Saudi or Qatari—billionaire seriously. Yet many do. The reason Saudis and Qataris never tell the truth is because their beards would fall out. It’s been scientifically proved.