Costello: Three billionaires explain the American Dream

Three rich guys on Trump, taxes, and the 'vilified' 1%
Three rich guys on Trump, taxes, and the 'vilified' 1%

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Three rich guys on Trump, taxes, and the 'vilified' 1% 06:13

Story highlights

  • Carol Costello talks to three billionaires about the secret to success and the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
  • They are oilman T. Boone Pickens, Home Depot founder Ken Langone and Leon Cooperman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs

Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Donald Trump paints a dark picture of America, so dark the American Dream is virtually impossible to achieve. A lot of Americans believe him, but after talking to three very rich guys, I don't.

Is it hard? Hell, yes. But is it impossible? Hell, no. Or, I should say it depends. The American dream has long morphed from what it once was: a house with a picket fence, two cars, 2.5 kids and a vacation every year.
    Today, everyone has their own American dream, although I suspect few would refuse the ultimate: money, money, money.
    "I had a newspaper route when I was 12," billionaire businessman, T. Boone Pickens told me. "I liked that money in my pocket." He added later, "I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better."
    Pickens is founder and CEO of Mesa Petroleum and BP Capitol. When he was 18 he "wanted to find a big oil field." He did, and as he said, "It all worked out."
    I sat down with Pickens, founder of Mesa Petroleum, along with fellow billionaires, Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot and and Leon Cooperman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and founder of Omega Advisors for a freewheeling and often intense conversation.
    I wanted to pick their brains on achieving the American Dream in today's world, since all of them grew up poor. Ken Langone's father was a plumber, his mother a cafeteria worker, yet he is richer than 99.9 percent of all Americans. And, yeah, if he had to do it all over again, he could.
    I told him he was crazy. College is expensive now. Young people carry debt that takes years to pay off. And when I told him young people think the system is stacked against them because rich people take advantage of those less fortunate, Langone became apoplectic.
    "Well guess what?" he said, "they need a lesson in reality, okay? I started working for $82.50 a week in 1957 with a college education. I could sit here and wring my hands about what somebody else had that I didn't have or I could say I'm going to get off my butt and I'm going to go out there and give this world one hell of a kick in the ass."

    The secret

    Pickens and Cooperman agree heartily on this: Work is the secret. Work and luck, though Cooperman acknowledged the economy is growing more slowly now.
    "The economy when he (Pickens) was growing up was growing 4 or 5%," he said. "It's growing 2% (now). It's definitely more difficult but it could be achieved. There's no question it could be achieved, but you need luck and you need hard work."
    Then a funny thing happened. All three of these men -- who could buy most of us three times over -- opened up their suit jackets. " "I usually put the date I bought this suit in here," Pickens said. "They sew it in for you. It was purchased in 2006." Cooperman opened his suit too and chimed in, "Syms, Syms. A hundred and nineteen dollars."
    This show of frugality meant to send a message: If you want to make money, don't spend it. And if you want to be happy? Give it away.
    "Money makes happy people happier," Pickens said. Langone added, "I know a lot of wealthy people who are miserable. They're the most unhappy people on earth and they have everything."
    These three men have given their money away to the collective tune of billions. All of them have signed the Gates/Buffet "Giving Pledge" promising to give more than half their wealth to charitable causes. Yet, said Langone, "We're also vilified."
    His defensiveness caught me off guard.
    "Why do you think that is?" I asked.
    "Because the media poisons their minds," Langone said. "That we exploit ... less fortunate people. We don't share. We don't give back. Give me a week and I'll give you all the things they say about us!"
    Langone was so annoyed by this, I steered the conversation to something less explosive: politics. Ha ha ha. I really did!

    Trump or Clinton?

    I asked them if Trump represented wealthy people in a positive way.
    "What about Hillary?" Langone asked. "Harry Truman said that if you go into politics and you leave rich you're not honest. The idea of this Clinton Initiative taking money from heads of states when the wife is Secretary of State is just unsavory "
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    "What you're really asking," Cooperman said, "is who are you supporting in the election?"
    Uh, yes.
    "President Obama successfully made Romney's success a liability," Cooperman continued. "Now we get a guy, who stands up in front of the cameras and says, I'm richer than you think ... he's not, by the way."
    "Wait," I said. "You don't think Donald Trump is worth 10 billion dollars?"
    "No," he said.
    Cooperman will not vote for Trump. "Anyone who mocks a handicapped person...which he did with the New York Times reporter, or if someone who says that John McCain isn't a hero, I could not bring myself to vote for that person," he said. Cooperman, still undecided about what to do with his ballot, joked that he might write in Alfred E. Neuman or Mitt Romney.
    As for Langone and Pickens? Both will vote Trump -- not because they love him, but because they think the country needs change.
    "Let me tell you what's missed. This is not about Trump," Langone said. "This is the American people using Trump as a token to express their anger and disgust with the system."

    Trump's taxes

    What about Trump's taxes? What about the fact he may not have paid federal income tax for 18 years? All of them said, duh, change the tax code!
    "After I was 70 years old," Pickens said, "I paid 675 million dollars in taxes." But, he said he hasn't paid any federal income tax for the past three years because "I had losses in '08 and '09 and I am still working off my losses."
    They ended our wide-ranging conversation by emphasizing that they've donated, or pledged to donate, more money to charitable causes than they have in the bank. And, don't forget, they said -- we really do create jobs.
    The American Dream? Dead?
    "No!" Pickens shouted.
    "Look at 'Shark Tank,'" Cooperman added. "Look at people starting up businesses, working hard. It's harder, it's not easier. The world is more competitive. We live in a global society. Look what's going on in China, look what's going on in Asia. There is the opportunity, but you have to work hard. You know the old expression, the harder I work the luckier I get."
    So, go get 'em, America.