Tom Perkins, A Man From A Bygone Era

Did men like this used to sit atop the technology industry? Atop our country?

Tom Perkins, once an icon in the venture industry and now a spectacle, gave yet another talk last night at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. A few weeks ago, he thrust himself into the nation’s inequality debate through a letter to the editor at the Wall Street Journal that compared criticism of the wealthy to a “Kristallnacht.” (Yes, really.) He says this will be his last two cents on the issue.

There was the classism: “If you’ve paid 75 percent of your lifetime earnings to the government, you’ve been persecuted.”

The vague sexism: “When [Hilary Clinton] walks into a room, the temperature drops 20 degrees.”

The vague racism: “[Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty] unknowingly created the destruction of lower-class families in America. Back in the early 1960s and 70s, the divorce rates between white and black marriages were about equal. But the War on Poverty made it possible for single mothers to live without a working man in the household and divorce rates have skyrocketed.”

Then the absurd: “If Germany had America’s gun laws, we would have never had Hitler.”

And maybe even more absurdly, his ex-wife and novelist Danielle Steel sat supportively in the audience. “I think he’s wonderful and he did a great job,” she said to me before she briskly left.

But then there was also self-awareness.

“I intended to be outrageous and I was,” he said, after suggesting that people should only be given the right to vote if they’ve paid taxes.

And some painful truth about the United States:

“We’re on a knife’s edge with this incredible debt, which can’t be paid back. It’s supported by faith in the dollar.”

And San Francisco:

“San Francisco doesn’t like the experience of becoming a suburb of Silicon Valley.” He added, “I don’t think there’s much you can do about that. It’s inevitable. As Silicon Valley thrives, more and more people will want to live in San Francisco.” And then went on, “San Francisco has been a very complex, busy, and interesting city since Day 1. I love it. But rents will go up if more people want to live here, and while housing is being built, it’s not being built fast enough.”

And this generation of technology entrepreneurs:

“They’re not starting companies. They’re writing software applications, which are products. There’s a huge difference between a product and a company. Their only room for liquidity is to sell to Google or Apple. Most of them fail.”

He veers from one reality to the next, from a distant past that got us here, into the present.

It’s the kind of political theater that’s sadly become necessary for San Francisco’s denizens to wake up from their smartphones and have a conversation. But maybe that’s why Perkins is such a captivating figure.