It was a grand, golden age ... for one-percent of us

Yes, this is a big time for the commercial networks -- Grammys, Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, more. But PBS is countering with three nights of terrific documentaries. It's Winnie Mandela on Monday (Feb. 5), "The Gilded Age" on Tuesday and the oldest human remains in the Americas on Wednesday. Here's the "Gilded" story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As the 19th
century ended, Americans were known for wealth and power.

This was “a
country rising to become the economic powerhouse we know today,”
said Mark Samels, producer of PBS' “American Experience” series.

And it was
transforming. The rich – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan
– were becoming much richer; the others were overwhelmed.

That's the focus of
Tuesday's “Experience” film. “The Gilded Age” sees the wealth
gap hit a dizzying extreme.

“In 1890, 51
percent of the wealth in this country was owned by the one-percent,”
said Edward O'Donnell, a history professor at College of the Holy
Cross. “It was reduced to 20 percent by 1980 – and it has since
rebounded to almost 40 percent.”

Back then, no
individual could stand up to the industrial giants. What about
unions? Or governments?

“The presidency
was so weak at this time,” Samels said. “I mean, really: Name the
presidents from 1865 (to the end of the century). They all have
beards and you can't remember their names.”

That was clear when
the financial system plunged. J.P. Morgan convened other money men to
prevent a collapse; the president was helpless.

“Nothing stopped
Grover Cleveland from grabbing the controls,” said Mark Zwonitzer,
the film's writer. “But when he grabbed them, they didn't connect
to anything”

And the workers?
“Industrialists in this period ... try to depict unions as
tyrannical,” O'Donnell said.

This was an era of
open arrogance, he said “Jay Gould said, when asked about the rise
of (a) labor union on his railroad: 'I could pay one-half the working
class to kill the other half.'”

One steel mogul was
an exception, he said. “Nobody in America of that status was more
aware of public relations than Andrew Carnegie.”

He was photographed
often and “always looks like Santa Claus; he's very genial.” He
said the right things and “probably did treat his workers better
than some major industrialists.” But in 1892, as a union contract
expired: “He said, 'Smash it. I'm going to Scotland. I don't want
the bad PR. Henry Clay Frick, you are my muscleman. You smash the
union, by hook or by crook.'”

Then the aftershocks
began – union-protection laws, political movements, government
controls. “What we learned was that people have to get involved in
politics,” said Nell Irvin Painter, a retired history Princeton
history professor.

It was the end of
the gilded age – at least, for a while.

-- “American
Experience: The Gilded Age,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, PBS