The Magazine

Dollar-a-Year Man

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook had an epiphany this past week, and thanks to the unlikeliest of inspirations: our dolorous secretary of state, John Forbes Kerry. Readers will recall that Secretary Kerry, as a gesture of sympathy to federal employees during the sequester, announced that he would set aside 5 percent of his annual salary to be given away. In this he was joined by President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, both of whom returned 5 percent of their wages to the government. But in Kerry’s case, this would be a charitable fund for State Department employees. 

John Kerry

Newscom

Needless to say, everyone has been impressed by the secretary’s selfless act​—​not least the State Department spokesman, who (according to -Reuters) explained that “we’re still looking at the best choice, and whether all of the money will go to one [charity] or whether it’ll be spread” among several charities. 

Now, it’s all very well for John Kerry to make a public gesture of selflessness during the political chess match between the White House and congressional Republicans. That’s how the game is played, and seeking what passes for the moral high ground is business as usual. But then it hit us: Five percent of John Kerry’s annual salary ($183,500) is an impressive, but by no means princely, sum ($9,175). And divided two or three ways, it’s practically an insult from a donor of John Kerry’s personal wealth. 

Which leads The Scrapbook to this question: Why does John Kerry accept any salary at all for his federal service? This is a man who is not only demonstrably loaded in his own right​—​the richest member of the Senate in his time​—​but also married to the widow of an heir to the H.J. Heinz fortune. Kerry’s net worth has been variously estimated to be between $184 million and $288 million. Translation: His $183,500 annual federal salary amounts, in Kerry dollars, to a generous tip. (And the 5 percent of it donated for sequester PR is the equivalent of The Scrapbook’s pledging for the relief of the poor the spare change found under its sofa cushions.) 

As it happens, the law forbids the federal government from employing volunteers, and so in times past, especially during national emergencies, when wealthy people have -donated their services to the nation, they have been paid a nominal $1 annual wage to satisfy the law. During the two world wars such well-heeled volunteers as Bernard Baruch, W. Averell Harriman, James Forrestal, and Henry Kaiser became known as “dollar-a-year men,” and outside Washington, the tradition lives on with certain mayors (Michael Bloomberg) and governors (Mitt Romney, Arnold Schwarzenegger). They are entitled to their salaries, of course, and generally earn them; but these men recognize that, at a certain level of wealth, such compensation is personally meaningless and publicly wasteful.

Of course, far be it from The Scrapbook to insist that Secretary of State John Kerry forgo the taxpayer-funded wage to which he is entitled: Even when your wealth is measured in the hundreds of millions, an extra $183,500 never hurts. We would draw the line, however, at self-praise for a sacrifice that, by any measure, isn’t really a sacrifice.

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