The Magazine

John Kerry Is Different from You and Me

From the August 2, 2004 issue: Yes, he has more money. Lots more.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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POOR PRESIDENT BUSH. It's not often a man with a net worth in the low eight figures is made to feel destitute. But compared with the other three men atop the national tickets, Bush seems almost indigent. This year, both ends of both tickets are rolling in lucre. Taken together, their net worth comes out at more than $1.3 billion, equivalent to the gross national product of many small nations. If Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Democrats' Johns--Kerry and Edwards--got together, they could fund their own country. Meanwhile, Bush, with a mere $18 million or so, is very much the low end of this quartet, worth three times less than the two men running for the privilege and post of being vice president, who score in the neighborhood of $50 million apiece. But they all seem like pikers next to John Kerry, who, thanks to his wife, has access to something over $1 billion, making him by far the richest man ever to run on a national ticket, as well as the most self-indulgent in his lifestyle, and the most quasi-royal in his sense of himself.

Wealth in American politics is of course nothing new. The Revolution was largely led by rich men from Virginia. The Declaration was written by a rich planter's son, Thomas Jefferson; the Constitution by Gouverneur Morris, son of a rich New York farmer. George Washington was a well-to-do planter whose wealth came from his wife, who was not rich herself but had married a wealthy first husband (the John Heinz of his era). We had the Kennedy brothers, the Roosevelt cousins, the various Bushes, brothers and sons, all of them comfortable. We have the many members of the millionaires' club in the Senate; those who got there on their names and their money (Jay Rockefeller and Edward M. Kennedy); and others (Jon Corzine) who made their own fortunes, and then bought their seats. But we have never seen anything quite like John Kerry, both in the extent of his wealth and his attitude toward it. He is not merely rich, he is stunningly wealthy. He became rich in a way unconnected to merit. Yet he seems to believe it's his due.

In most cases, the well-to-do in American politics have been like the Kennedys, Bushes, and Roosevelts, people who lived in great comfort but not ostentation, with, say, a town house, a (family) place in the country, small pleasure boats, and of course live-in help. When he ran for president, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a flat in New York and the family seat in Hyde Park and he lived in the governor's mansion in Albany. Theodore Roosevelt had a house in Washington (where he served as McKinley's vice president), and his ungainly Sagamore Hill mansion on Long Island. When John Kennedy ran, he had a nice but unostentatious town house in Georgetown, and a nice but unremarkable house on Cape Cod. (To be fair, he also had access to his father's Palm Beach oceanside mansion, and the family's several apartments in New York.) When George W. Bush ran for president, he lived in the governor's mansion in Austin, and his one home was his ranch.

Kerry by contrast is master and commander of no fewer than five lavish mansions, all large, and all on the priciest real estate, where property values boggle the mind: There is the $3.7 million mansion in Fox Chapel, Pa., on a 90-acre estate with a pool and a carriage house; the $6.9 million town house on Beacon Hill back in Boston; the $9.1 million waterfront house on Nantucket Island; and a $5 million ski chalet in Ketchum, Idaho, built from a 15th-century barn discovered in England that was then taken apart, shipped to America, and reassembled stone by stone. When they want to live simply, the Heinz Kerrys make do with a 23-room town house in Georgetown, almost three times the size of the one that the Kennedys lived in, and worth a mere $4.7 million. To go back and forth between all of these places, the Kerrys have the deluxe model of the Gulfstream V private jet, which retails for about $35 million.

Play, too, is costly for Kerry, who recreates with a bike that costs $8,000 and a motorboat that goes for $800,000. In 2003, Kerry's main source of personal income was the sale for $1,350,000 of a painting, part of which he "bought" seven years ago from his wife. (Nice work if you can get it.) According to the Los Angeles Times, Franklin D. Roosevelt was worth about $11 million in today's money when he died in 1945; Lyndon B. Johnson about $82 million in 1966; and John F. Kennedy was worth about $124 million in 1960. The same report put the wealth of Teresa Heinz Kerry at between $1 billion and $3.8 billion, or more than five times the worth of these wealthy former presidents combined. With the exception of Nelson A. Rockefeller, who eyed the presidency three times in the 1960s, and served for a short time as the appointed vice president to Gerald R. Ford, this is something without precedent in the upper levels of our national politics. Never before has there been so vast a gap between the life of a possible national leader and that of the people he wishes to govern. Whatever his politics, Kerry is living at a level of luxury wholly unseen in American politics.

WILL IT MATTER? "Americans are just not resentful of rich politicians if they feel they got their money in some fair way," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, speaking of Kerry and others. But some ways are fairer than others. The closest thing to a Horatio Alger story in this year's race is of course John Edwards, a self-made millionaire, who, if his background was not quite as grim as he paints it, at least owes his cash to his own exertions--the sweat, if not of his brow, then of his tongue. Dick Cheney was also born poor in obscurity, but, unlike Edwards, who became rich and then famous, using his fortune made in the private sector to launch him in politics, Cheney became famous, then rich. His is the classic Washington story, in which you spend years working day and night for a comparatively modest government salary and then use your contacts and experience to make tons of money.

Both Edwards and Cheney can fairly be said to have made it themselves, though the fields in which they made it--trial lawyering and the oil business--are not regarded with reverence. Bush comes from the ranks of the privileged youth who float through early life on family connections and money, and try later in life to earn it on their own. And no one can claim that his fortune--secured mainly through the sale of his stake in the Texas Rangers, which he got through the web of his father's connections--was earned by the sweat of his brow. Bush got his access by way of his parents, but at least had to do something.

But it is with Kerry that the gap between money and effort is greatest. He secured access to a fortune of over $1 billion by saying two words: "I do." Unless one thinks ill of the woman he married, one can hardly regard this as "earned." Of course, his wife did not earn it either; she inherited it from her first husband, making it in effect a hand-along on two different levels. Kerry has made a practice, if not a career, of romancing very rich women and living well on their money--his first wife, Julia Thorne, had a family fortune of $300 million when he married her. Between heiresses, there was a hiatus, in which he was forced to live on his salary, which seems to have been an unpleasant experience. Mrs. Heinz took him away from all this, moving him in an instant from vagabond senator to the lap of luxury, into which he has happily settled. Add up the two marriages, and Kerry has been a consort for much of his life, a man whose wives signed the checks for the big-ticket items, a concept with a faintly old-world connotation, and one that calls to mind The Golden Bowl. Marrying money is hardly improper; but neither does it inspire confidence, especially for those of the masculine gender. Cinderella is a fairy-tale heroine, but a consort always appears just a little ridiculous--at best a freeloader, at worst someone suspected of possibly planning an accident. (See "Hitchcock, Alfred," and just about any film noir.)

Granted staggering wealth on the basis of marriage, Kerry seems to believe he deserves it, and perhaps always has. Such, at least, is the popular perception among the voters who know him best. "One of the surest ways to get the phones ringing on any Massachusetts talk-radio show is to ask people to call in and tell their John Kerry stories," says Howie Carr, the Boston Herald columnist and radio host. "The phone lines are soon filled, and most of the stories have a common theme: The junior senator pulling rank on one of his constituents, breaking in line, demanding to pay less (or nothing), or ducking out before the bill arrives. The tales often have one other common thread. Most end with Sen. Kerry inquiring of the lesser mortal: 'Do you know who I am?'" Just For Kerry is a common Bostonian take on what his initials stand for; and a possible insight into his priorities could be inferred from his tax records for the year 1993 (when he was between wives), in which he earned $130,345 and gave exactly $175 to charity, while indulging in an $8,600 Italian-made mountain bike for himself.

Throughout his career as an officeholder, John Kennedy gave his salary away to various charities, and lived on his trust fund. In this respect as in so many others, John Forbes Kerry is no JFK. "Kerry tosses around quarters like they were manhole covers," Carr jokes, while maintaining a fondness for luxuries. According to the Boston Globe, between 1990 and 1995 (when he married John Heinz's widow), Kerry earned a total of $724,042 and gave $4,869 to charity, or a grand total of 0.7 percent. (In the same years, William Weld, Kerry's blue-blood opponent in the Senate race of 1996, earned $1,082,875 and gave away $164,928, or 15.2 percent.) In this six-year span between his two marriages, the most Kerry ever gave to charity was $2,039 in 1994. Two years, he gave nothing at all. In the years between his two marriages, Kerry leaned heavily on friends and constituents to cushion the stresses of living on a salary, receiving generous favors of condos and cars. In his new status of billionaire's consort, he hasn't stopped asking for favors. A fire hydrant that prevented him and his wife from parking their SUV in front of their Beacon Hill town house was removed by the city of Boston. The lawn at the imported ski chalet in Idaho is kept fresh and green by a water pipe laid down and maintained by the state.

ECONOMIC CONSERVATIVES--and most voters--have traditionally been happy to let the rich rake it in, as long as the other classes also keep rising, on the grounds that a system that allows a few to be obscenely rich also creates a better life for most people, or at least a more prosperous life than they would lead under a sluggish economy that tried much harder to spread much less money around. But liberals cling to the cause of proportion, the sense that it is indecent for any one class, one person, or even one country to claim too many of the goods of the earth. How dreadful, they tell us, that Americans, who make up 3 percent of the world's population, consume 30 percent of its product, and how dreadful that 3 percent of the population in this country controls 20 percent of its wealth. So is it also dreadful that John Kerry's wife controls more than the gross national product of many Third World countries; that he has five mansions while most struggle to keep up the payments on one modest house, and many own no home at all?

Not fair at all, one can hear Kerry saying, as he jets between Georgetown and Boston on the Flying Squirrel (his wife's private jet, equivalent models of which would cost $5,000 an hour to charter). How much does it take to keep John Kerry going? Let's see. Add up his wife's holdings, and divide them by two (they have no dependent children still living with them) and you come up with some interesting things. Their five very large houses are worth more than $30 million (the property taxes alone cost more than most people's houses), so it takes $20 million simply to house him. Add in the plane and the boat, and the cost of transporting and entertaining John Kerry comes to almost $16 million. Add in incidentals--the bike, the tending by Christophe, etc.--and you come out with one historically high-maintenance candidate.

Most rich people in politics have had one or two major houses, and made constant use of them. The Franklin Roosevelts spent their time at Hyde Park; the Theodore Roosevelts at Sagamore Hill. And the Kennedys were either in Palm Beach or Cape Cod, usually with a large horde of children. The Heinz Kerrys, by contrast, stay in some of their multimillion-dollar dwellings only a few weeks in the year. Most of the American political rich seem like American types, only richer, as they play in their none-too-elaborate family compounds, tossing a football, or whacking at brush. Kerry is a departure from this pattern, in the scale of his wealth, and his attitude to it. This is a republic, not the Austro-Hungarian Empire, nor even a plot from a Henry James novel. Are we really ready for a consort who seems to believe he's a prince?

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.