An American View

Trafficking in false hopes and heartbreak

Fred Bruning May 27 1996
An American View

Trafficking in false hopes and heartbreak

Fred Bruning May 27 1996

Trafficking in false hopes and heartbreak

An American View

Fred Bruning

It is an inspired advertising line that taps squarely into the cerebral cortex of every optimistic soul hoping to hit the New York state lottery and cruise down Easy Street in a stretch limo. “Hey, you never know,” the slogan teases and every frustrated, fed-up working stiff hears it echo like thunder as he hastens to buy a fistful of tickets to paradise. Hey, you never know.

Now comes Gov. George Pataki who, in a moment of civic righteousness, declared the slogan politically incorrect. The state should not be hustling its citizenry with the lure of mere money, said Pataki. “It has always bothered me to hold up the prospect of instant riches,” he explained. Instead of big bucks, New York should emphasize the commendable purpose of the sweepstakes—to support education. “We are aggressively looking to stress the original purpose of the lottery,” the governor said.

Fortunately for Pataki, he did not pursue a career on Madison Avenue. People buy lottery tickets because they want to make a killing and they could care less whether the local high school gets a new science lab or there is enough left in the budget to paint the kindergarten lunchroom. If Pataki is queasy about state involvement in a racket where odds are long enough to reach the moon, if he cares that poor people are spending precious dollars on a bum deal, if he worries that his constituents are seized by the gambling fever that has the country drenched with sweat, then he should do the honest thing and say he wants New York to quit a role more suited to the Mafia and get out of the gaming industry.

No chance of that—how would Pataki compensate for the lost lottery revenue?

Nor is it likely that officials will retire the “Hey, you never know” campaign. The chief of the state lottery bureau said the blurb would endure, along with those irresistible promotional shots of mansions, yachts and other treasures associated with the lifestyle of the rich and famous. It is a sensible and forthright position. If you are going to traffic in false hopes and heartbreak, be as clever and professional as possible. When it comes to the business of separating a sucker from his money, only the very slick survive.

Lest anyone suggest that the New York lottery is just another sinful enterprise of the depraved urban northeast, it should be noted that 36 other states—and, wow, even the provincial governments of cultivated Canada, too!—run similar operations. Americans squander $55 billion annually on “games” of chance and Las Vegas is now the fastest-growing U.S. city. One of its newest tourist destinations is the year-old Hard Rock Casino, where memorabilia includes a Bob Dylan guitar and a Jim Morrison lyric sheet. Owner Peter Morton told Frank Rich of The New York

People buy lottery tickets because they want to make a killing and could care less whether the proceeds go to a new science lab

Times that revenue is far beyond expectations—“out of the ball park.” So the Sixties aren’t dead, after all. Only the definition of social “action” has changed.

A recent bill in the House of Representatives would create a commission to assess the impact of gambling on the nation. But what can a study group say that isn’t already obvious? Gambling siphons money from those who least can afford it and when the state serves as croupier, the arrangement is particularly noxious. No amount of high-toned moralizing is apt to stop folks from betting the rent money, or legislatures from cashing in on human frailty. In an economy where the poor struggle to get by, and middle-class wage earners live in constant fear of doomsday, gambling has an especially powerful lure. Who can resist the promise of free money?

This is a culture that douses itself in avarice and dares somebody to strike a match. We are dazzled by money and the people who flaunt it. Rock stars, big-league pitchers, movie idols, underworld dons, corporate barons—we love anybody with a car the length of Rhode Island and a suit equal in value to the down payment on a house. It is as though affluence alone has made them wise, as though Michael Jackson or Madonna has uncovered the most elusive secrets of the universe. We seem blissfully ignorant of the risks—blind to the possibility that we will wish too hard for what we can’t have and see ourselves failures for falling short.

But if excess invigorates the little guy, it positively ignites the well-to-do. Look at the imperial spectacle the Cartier crowd made of itself at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction in Manhattan. No price was too high, no relic of Camelot without its constituency. Someone bought Jackie’s fake pearls for $290,000. A tape measure brought nearly $70,000. A cigar humidor went for well more than half a million. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger had to pay $1,060,000 for a set of John Kennedy’s golf clubs—and Schwarzenegger is married to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver! When the auctioneer called a halt, $47 million had changed hands.

“The principal thing I find distasteful is the prices being paid,” said historian William Manchester, who wrote one of the enduring books about the Kennedy years, The Death of a President. “Most Americans don’t have this kind of money. Most have a budget and not much left over.” Manchester is entirely correct. Rich folks had themselves a blast at Sotheby’s and, in the process, made the rest of us seem like pikers. If a person pays more than half a million for a cigar box, what does that say about the guy who can’t afford a cigar?

But are we offended? Outraged? Ready to scream? We are not. We are at our kitchen tables, hearts beating fast, sweat dewy on our brows, eyes leaping between our tickets and the lucky numbers published in the daily paper. Move over, Schwarzenegger, we are thinking. Hey, you never know.