Ragged Dick

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

Illustration by Bob AulRagged Dick sounds like the perfect name for a book about the life story of Orange County's high-stakes property developer, below-the-belt landlord and non-Spanish-speaking U.S. ambassador to Spain, George Argyros. Either that or Colin Farrell's social calendar. It's reached the point where somebody mentions George Argyros, and we automatically think: Ragged Dick. Anymore, we're apt to come right out and say it: Ragged Dick. Try it: Ragged Dick. It's sassy fun!

Only problem is connecting Argyros with Ragged Dick isn't really fair to author Horatio Alger, who came up with that title 137 years ago. Calling a book Ragged Dick was as good for sales in 1867 as it would be now. It launched Alger's career as a teller of all-American parables about poor boys who made good. In other words, Ragged Dick actually is a very inappropriate way to respond when somebody mentions George Argyros—a poor boy who only made money.

Argyros is worth between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion, according to forms he filled out in 2001 when President George W. Bush nominated him to that ambassadorship. Argyros built this fortune from some pretty humble beginnings, too, which is a really nice way of saying he's from Detroit. Only one thing prevents the arc of Argyros' life from reading like the rough draft for all of Alger's approximately 130 morality tales. That would be, you know, morality.

If you don't know George Argyros, you don't know Orange County; if he doesn't perfectly reflect Algerian values, he is the very mirror of go-go Orange County businessmen. Rising to prominence in the 1980s through successful real-estate ventures, he has given much to others; as chairman of the board of trustees of Chapman University, he oversaw the expansion of the school, graciously allowing others to name various rooms, alcoves and buildings after himself (e.g., the George Argyros Forum) or his wife. He also backed the wildly unpopular El Toro Airport in an effort to reduce the irksome noise that comes with having a Newport Beach mansion directly beneath the John Wayne Airport flight path. When the public resisted Argyros' imperial instincts to build an international airport in the middle of Orange County, Argyros opened his wallet and ponied up—some $2 million by the end—to persuade us we were stupid. We weren't.

Argyros controversies aren't limited to Orange County. Back in the 1980s, he was reviled as the owner of baseball's Seattle Mariners, raising ticket prices while the team was mired in mediocrity because Argyros refused to spend money on players.

In Orange County in the 1990s, when Argyros served as chairman of Apria Healthcare Group, the company allegedly shorted Medicare at least $103 million. Ten years later, the Orange County district attorney charged Argyros' real-estate investment firm, Arnel Management Co., with illegally withholding renters' deposits and overcharging for repairs.

Alger would have been appalled. But none of that poses an obstacle for the group that bears his name, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, based in Alexandria, Virginia. The organization inducted Argyros as a member in 1993; he sits on the group's board. On April 15 in Washington, D.C., during ceremonies to be taped for a PBS special, Argyros will be handed the society's highest honor, the . . . Norman Vincent Peale Award?

That's right, and if you're wondering how a group identified with a simple idealist like Horatio Alger came to name its highest honor after a spiritual blowhard like Norman Vincent Peale, then you might be ready to wade through the arrogant, opportunistic and all-around fucked-up logic that could give this prize to a "ragged dick" like George Argyros.

Then again, maybe you'd prefer to read a little bit from Ragged Dick. Here's a quick sample, slightly edited for brevity as well as to emphasize the "Dick" parts:

"What is your name?" asked Ida, pleasantly. Our hero was about to answer "Ragged Dick," when it occurred to him that in the present company he had better forget his old nickname. . . . "Everybody calls me Dick." "I like the name of Dick," said the young lady, with charming frankness. Without being able to tell why, Dick felt rather glad she did. . . . "You're a big boy of your age," said Ida. "My cousin Dick is a year older than you, but he isn't as large." Dick looked pleased. Boys generally like to be told that they are large of their age. "How old be you?" asked Dick, beginning to feel more at his ease. "I'm nine years old," said Ida. . . . "Do you go to school?" "I'm studying with a private tutor," said Dick. "So is my cousin Dick. He's going to college this year. Are you going to college?" "Not this year." "Because if you did, you know, you'd be in the same class with my cousin. It would be funny to have two Dicks in one class."

With all that Viagratic repartee, you get the sense that Ragged Dick is the cultural antecedent of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. He's not. His is the story of a poor street kid who applies his core values to an endearing ambition and thereby pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and, okay, so maybe Ragged Dick is a little like Dirk Diggler—you know, if you substitute for those bootstraps an immense schlong.

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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