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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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.)