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A Billionaire’s Party Is a Lens on Wealth in the Trump Era


Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive officer of Blackstone Group LP.
Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive officer of Blackstone Group LP.

So, Stephen A. Schwarzman had another birthday party.

The celebration for his 70th birthday at his Palm Beach, Fla., home over the weekend included live camels, trapeze artists and a performance by Gwen Stefani. Some reports speculated the party cost as much as $20 million, a price tag that insiders say is ridiculously inflated, but clearly the event fell in the category of over-the-top expensive.

Normally, a birthday party for a boldface name wouldn't warrant a sentence outside the gossip pages. But Mr. Schwarzman is the billionaire co-founder of the Blackstone Group as well as President Trump's latest BFF as the chairman of the president's strategic policy forum — and his last birthday bash turned into a cultural flash point.

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You might recall that, a decade ago, Mr. Schwarzman's 60th birthday party — reportedly for some $5 million at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan — spun into a yearslong existential crisis on Wall Street about the evils of conspicuous consumption.

On Wall Street and in the media, Mr. Schwarzman's 2007 party was treated as a five-alarm fire. Many media outlets gawked at it prominently, with an implicit tsk, tsk. The New Yorker declared that it had turned Mr. Schwarzman into private equity's "designated villain." Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, introduced what became known as the Blackstone Bill to end the tax treatment of carried interest, though industry opposition managed to shoot it down.

Oh, how times have changed.

In the age of Mr. Trump and his famed golden penthouse, Mr. Schwarzman's party has largely been ignored except for a bit of chattering by Town & Country and sniping among the schadenfreude-loving Acela Corridor Crowd.

Perhaps Mr. Trump has normalized conspicuous consumption. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, there were a few smuggled snapshots of the Schwarzman party passed around, but not much in the way of great viral outcry. A small band of protesters who tried to picket the party on Saturday night did not get anywhere close to it, nor was there much media pickup on the group's message.

The collective yawn may say something larger about the shifts in the way parts of the country think about great wealth — and perhaps how they have always thought about big money.

Mr. Trump's election and the nominations of his cabinet of billionaires may draw ire from his critics, but the people who elected him — who draw largely from the middle and lower classes — appear nonplussed by his, and other people's, showy displays of wealth. Indeed, judging by various polls, much of the country aspires to live like Mr. Schwarzman and Mr. Trump.

While Mr. Trump himself did not attend the party, his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, did. So did others from the administration, including Elaine L. Chao, the transportation secretary; Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Wilbur Ross, the nominee for commerce secretary. Other guests included everyone from the prominent financier Henry R. Kravis of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the fashion designer Donatella Versace to Susan George, executive director of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund in New York.

People who were there said that the tennis courts had been covered with Asian-themed staging, and that Mr. Schwarzman was presented an oversize cake that looked like an Asian temple. But even a generous tally of all the most lavish components couldn't get you anywhere within shouting distance of $20 million: Even if, theoretically, Gwen Stefani had charged the $1 million that Rod Stewart was said to have charged at Mr. Schwarzman's 60th (and she didn't; the figure was substantially lower), it would take 20 of her to get to that price tag.

A friend of Mr. Schwarzman's said that one of the lessons from the 60th birthday's blowback was he was never going to satisfy his critics, and that he had to live his life on his own terms. At age 70, said the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to express candid views, Mr. Schwarzman has given a lot back and does not need to placate everyone.

In truth, Mr. Schwarzman has become perhaps the most successful financier on Wall Street over the past decade, growing Blackstone to become the pre-eminent asset manager in the country, pulling far ahead of his private-equity rivals and turning his firm into one of the largest real estate investors in the world. And his generosity has extended to several nine-figure donations — that's more than $100 million each — to Yale, the New York Public Library and a scholarship program modeled after the Rhodes for students from the United States to attend Tsinghua University in China.

Last week, responding to scholarship recipients' criticism over his decision to help Mr. Trump, Mr. Schwarzman wrote in a letter: "I regret that some scholars have reservations about my following this approach with the new administration in Washington. In life, you'll often find that having influence and providing sound advice is a good thing, even if it attracts criticism or requires some sacrifice."

The populist, anti-Wall Street sentiment that was so loud after the financial crisis found its voice last year in the campaign of Bernie Sanders — and to some degree, ironically, in Mr. Trump's. Whatever animus exists against fat cats has been muted among Mr. Trump's red-state voters, at least temporarily, as long as he follows though on his promise to create jobs. It's a point that many of us in the media — myself included — largely missed.

Indeed, Mr. Trump's surprise election may speak volumes about how large parts of the country view big business today, as well as Mr. Trump's efforts to lower taxes and deregulate parts of Wall Street. And Mr. Schwarzman is at the center of many of those efforts.

Back in 2012, NPR ran an article which clearly did not get the attention it deserved, especially given what it portended for the subsequent election cycle. The headline: "The Income Gap: Unfair, Or Are We Just Jealous?"

At the time, much of the media was regularly reporting on income inequality, the widening gulf between the rich and poor.

The NPR article was based on the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center that bear repeating: They showed "a significant shift in public perceptions of class conflict in American life," but "they do not necessarily signal an increase in grievances toward the wealthy."

According to the Pew report, "It is possible that individuals who see more conflict between the classes think that anger toward the rich is misdirected." The data, the report said, did not indicate "growing support for government measures to reduce income inequality."

Maybe that explains it. Or perhaps everyone who criticized Mr. Schwarzman a decade ago is now just too busy focusing on Mr. Trump.