Sunday, February 08, 2009

My Children Made Me Do It

By STEPHEN AMIDON
Greenfield, Mass.

MY father didn’t leave me much when he died.

Although he was at one time a fast-rising executive in a multinational company, a combination of corporate skullduggery and his own personal demons meant he had little in the bank when he died in 2001, a few days before his 70th birthday.

There was nothing for his four children except a small array of personal items, including a particularly sturdy hairbrush I was astute enough to claim. I still own it, in fact, and use it daily to tame my rapidly thinning hair, which is probably coming unglued due to worry about what sort of inheritance I will be able to provide my own four children.

I got to thinking about that brush when I read that a colleague of Tom Daschle had said that his tax woes — not to mention the lucrative private-sector temptations he gave into — may have stemmed from his desire to make enough money to lay a fat nest egg for his children.

It is hard to see how riding in a free limo benefits future generations, but even if I give Mr. Daschle the benefit of the doubt, I cannot help but note the paradox here. A man’s desire to provide his progeny with a big score has resulted in him saddling them with a very different sort of inheritance — a legacy of embarrassment.

Instead of being remembered as the savior of the nation’s health care system or even as just a middling health secretary, their father will now forever be known as the guy who hitched a ride with some private-equity hot rodders and then neglected to chip in for the gas. Most sons and daughters I know would gladly forgo a portion of their birthright in order to be invited to pool parties at the Obama White House and not to have a dad serving as fodder for late-night television wisecracks.

Inheritances can be tricky things. Even those given with the best of intentions can often go awry. Just ask King Lear. He simply wanted to turn Britain over to his daughters so he could enjoy the medieval equivalent of retirement in Boca Raton, but wound up starting a bloody civil war that brought ruin on his family.

On the other end of the ancestral give-and-take, there’s Richard Carstone, who appears in Dickens’s “Bleak House.” Richard was a nice enough boy who caused his own destruction by obsessively pursuing a share of a disputed legacy.

At the bottom of the barrel, there’s Bernard Madoff, who is reported to have planned to dispense a desk full of booty to his relatives to keep the family fortune one step ahead of the law. Sure, everybody wants to get a surprise bequest from their Uncle Bernie, but probably not if it comes with a co-conspirator rap attached.

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