The Magazine

Lifestyles of the Rich and Liberal

The conspicuous consumption of today’s Democratic pols.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Lifestyles of the Rich and Liberal

John Kerry’s 76-foot yacht, ‘Isabel’

AP Images

"The very rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, eliciting the famous rejoinder from Ernest Hemingway, “Yes, they have more money.” Today he might add that they are apt to be Democrats, often exceedingly liberal Democrats, fond of talking of “fairness” and equity as they rake in what seems like vast sums of money, and spend immense sums on themselves. Confronted with tales of their zillionaire populists, liberals claim (a) that the way that they vote counts for more than the way they spend money; and (b) that many great names in political history have lived well and had money themselves. The last point is true, but there is a difference in degree and in kind that has only come recently. Let us consider the facts.

For 200 years, the approach to money of Americans in power has been a studied aversion to glitz. The Founders who could spend lavishly on clothes, wine, and houses, thought the “pressure to get the image right for political reasons” (as a biographer of Martha Washington put it) ruled out displays of the sort of indulgence that could be considered as “fit for a king.” A century later, the Roosevelts distanced themselves from the Gilded Age moguls, avoiding Newport and upper Fifth Avenue for smaller townhouses on less splashy streets. Theodore built a large, ugly house at Sagamore Hill on Long Island, and had enough money to go on safari, but otherwise frowned on extravagance, with his second wife urging his daughter Alice “not to buy fifty hats at twenty dollars apiece and two dozen stockings at five dollars apiece and thirty veils and ten pairs of shoes. .  .  . How would you like Archie [her half-brother] to give up college to pay for your debts?” His fifth cousin Franklin, whose mother controlled much of his money, and his niece Eleanor were even less inclined to be big spenders. “They lived like a rather old-fashioned American gentleman’s family in ‘comfortable circumstances,’ ” wrote Joseph Alsop, their cousin. “There was nothing in the way they lived that could be said in the smallest degree to be glossy, or particularly conspicuous.” Roosevelt’s “home at Hyde Park was a comfortable, old shoe country house for a large and noisy family. .  .  . If he always dressed in custom-tailored suits and expensive woolen sweaters, they were often tattered and wrinkled,” writes Michael Barone in Our Country. “One senses that [he] saw no reason that anyone needed to live more luxuriously than he did, and that he felt incomes above the level of his own should be used to help ordinary people, not to make obscene extravagance possible for a few.”

So strongly was “obscene extravagance” ruled out as a model that when Joseph P. Kennedy, who could have bought the Roosevelts many times over, was looking for a family seat in which to raise his future political leaders, he bought the Malcolm cottage in non-posh Hyannis Port, because, as Michael Knox Beran informs us, it was not ostentatious or large. “Even after he enlarged it, the Malcolm cottage remained a conspicuously modest place, a New England summer house, spacious and comfortable but not at all grand, a rambling, white-shingled somewhat ordinary house .  .  . the house of a successful lawyer, a well-off banker, not an American tycoon.” The children he raised there would be hungry for many things, but material goods were not some of them. John Kennedy, who lived all his adult life on the proceeds of a $10 million trust fund he was given when he reached 21 ($155 million in today’s money), gave all of his salary to various charities, totaling about $400,000 between 1947 and 1962.

As he lived on money he did not earn, and worked in essence for nothing, there was no link in his mind between money and effort, which he tried to make up for by constantly asking acquaintances what they paid for things (which he had bought for him), and how much they made. This did not seem to work, as his father was once stunned to hear him explain to an aide that $5,000 a year was more than enough for a family to live on. Periodically, Kennedy père would ask friends to drop in and explain money to him, but these efforts were never rewarded. Kennedy would ask if there was “enough,” be told that there was, and then would lose interest. It didn’t concern him at all.

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