Ragged Dick

Only one thing prevents George Argyros life from reading like a Horatio Alger morality tale. That would be, you know, morality

But Ragged Dick is not like George Argyros.

The whole point of Alger's rags-to-riches sagas is that the United States is a country where courageously holding to principles like honesty, cheerfulness, virtue, thrift and hard work holds the promise of a long-term payoff. Argyros never demonstrated that kind of faith. His rags-to-riches story took an immediate shortcut via ruthlessness.

Consider the thousands of renters who were ripped off for millions of dollars in overcharges and cleaning deposits in apartment complexes Argyros owns. Drop his name in the Crest View neighborhood of Huntington Beach, where hundreds of people now live in the congested shadow of the Wal-Mart he shoehorned amid their residential streets, and see what they say. Ask the voters of Orange County, who twice rejected the international airport that Argyros tried to shove down their throats so that his company could build it. Then there are the fans of the Seattle Mariners and the travelers who flew Air Cal—companies Argyros milked almost dry—not to mention millions of people across the whole freakin' country of Spain, where Argyros has served as ambassador since 2001.

So how does George Argyros rate the highest recognition from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans? Even he sounds kind of flabbergasted, noting in a quote supplied in a press release that "for them to award me with this award is both astounding and humbling." Spoken like a man who just learned that the list of previous award winners includes Ed McMahon and the CEO of Dr. Pepper.

But there is a simple explanation. The Horatio Alger Association wasn't founded by Alger, who died broke in 1899 after a lifetime of writing his sweet, simple stories. It was invented in 1947 by Norman Vincent Peale (thus the name of the award that Argyros is going to get) who was a minister who became a multimedia millionaire.

Peale's recipe for success mixed Biblical scripture with Freudian psychology to create a motivational stew that basically co-signed whatever anybody wanted to do. Peale's most famous book was The Power of Positive Thinking, but he also had a weekly radio program, The Art of Living, broadcast on NBC for 54 years; the magazine Guidepost with a circulation of more than 4 million; a mailing list of 750,000 for his sermons; and a 1964 movie, One Man's Way, about his life. Peale's legacy lives on in the likes of the very Reverend Robert Schuller, Paul Crouch and Benny Hinn.

Meanwhile, Horatio Alger's modern reputation has been torn limb from limb. On one hand, the establishment of the Horatio Alger Association exalted him to nearly divine status. On the other hand, the message of Alger's success stories has been boiled down to its crudest essence—the meritocracy of hard-core capitalism—while excluding his emphasis on the civilities that provide the dollar bill with something worth measuring.

Here's how Alger described his mission in the preface to a book he titled Joe The Hotel Boy, or Winning Out By Pluck: "If there is a moral to be drawn from this story, it is a twofold one: namely that honesty is always the best policy, and that if one wishes to succeed in life, he must stick at his work steadily and watch every opportunity for advancement."

Alger re-emphasized his point in the preface to Paul Prescott's Charge, explaining that the book "is written in furtherance of the same idea, that every boy's life is a campaign, more or less difficult, in which success depends upon integrity and a steadfast adherence to duty."

Just in case anybody might misconstrue his support of capitalism as an abandonment of ethics, Alger became involved in liberal Republican political activities of the time. He publicly criticized cutthroat business techniques. His works began to condemn wealthy investors who artificially inflated railroad stocks; several novels included villains that unfairly swindled his other characters.

Of course, none of this means that Alger never could have written a book based on Argyros. It's easy to imagine such a scenario in the opening lines of a story called Driven From Home:

A boy of 16, with a small gripsack in his hand, trudged along the country road. He was of good height for his age, strongly built, and had a frank, attractive face. He was naturally of a cheerful temperament, but at present his face was grave, and not without a shade of anxiety. This can hardly be a matter of surprise when we consider that he was thrown upon his own resources, and that his available capital consisted of 37 cents in money. . . .

Of course, in this story, the Argyros character wouldn't be the kid, but the "ragged dick" of a landlord who put him on the street.

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