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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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Like TR with Alice, JFK was embarrassed by Jackie’s extravagance, and penchant for socializing with the idle and otherwise rich. “Tell her it’s hurting me politically,” he told his chief of protocol, concerning her insistence on keeping an Arabian thoroughbred given her by the king of Saudi Arabia. “More Caroline, less [Gianni] Agnelli,” he cabled in August 1962, when she spent a month with her sister Lee Radziwill in Ravello, Italy, where she cut costs by staying in private houses, but raised eyebrows by partying with the jet-set till dawn. He was also irked by her domestic extravagance. “Staff as well as friends detected .  .  . friction over money,” Sally Bedell Smith informs us in her book Grace and Power, in particular over $40,000 ($250,000 in today’s money) in bills for “department stores,” after which he imported the accountant who helped bring down the Teamsters to straighten out her finances. Nonetheless, her expenses peaked in 1962 at $121,461 ($875,000 in today’s money), $21,500 more than her husband’s earnings as president. Kennedy, Smith says, could afford this, but found it unbecoming: “He was careful with money, and disliked the appearance of financial excess.”

Kennebunkport, the Bush family compound in Maine, followed the FDR pattern of an “old shoe country house for a large and noisy family,” with an ambience much like that at Hyannis, with its competitions and endless activity. The rich vacationed at their summer houses, sailed small boats, and played football and horseshoes. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had simple ranch houses in California and Texas, where they rode bikes and horses, and mainly cut brush. This was the pattern of the rich in American politics. Until 2003-2010.

Oddly, it was with three of the four on the Democrats’ 2000 and 2004 national tickets that the great change would take place. When he at last lost the Florida recount, Al Gore had lived for eight years in the vice president’s mansion, and owned two different houses: a brick Tudor across the Potomac in Arlington that had belonged to his wife Tipper’s family, and his family farm back in -Tennessee. Shortly, he bought a 20-room, 10,000-square-foot house in the Belle Meade section of Nashville, and embarked on a career in the private sector that would balloon his net worth into a substantial fortune, in the $100 million-plus range. At the same time, he began a second career as an anti-global warming crusader that won him a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar, but allowed him to use an endless procession of jet planes and motorcades as he went to a series of Save the Earth rallies, at which he urged people to live in a green and more modest manner, build smaller houses, use less heat and power, and drive and fly less.

In 2008, he acquired a houseboat, a 100-foot custom-built Fantasy Yacht estimated to cost between $500,000 and $1 million. In 2010, he bought a fourth house, a seaside estate in California, spending almost $9 million for a “gated ocean-view villa .  .  . with a swimming pool, spa, and fountains .  .  . wine cellar, terraces, six fireplaces, five bedrooms, and nine baths in more than 6,500 square feet.” In 2007, a study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research revealed that Gore’s house in Nashville “devoured nearly 221,000 kilowatt hours in 2006—more than 20 times the national average,” that his monthly gas bill averaged $1,080 and his electric bill $1,359. “Why would anyone need a fourth mansion?” asked the Huffington Post, which called “Gore’s commodity addiction” at odds with his professed belief in “simplicity of living, care for other beings,” and concern for the state of the earth. 

All this was true, but at four houses, (two of them mansions), along with one boat, he was still a mansion short of John Kerry, the Democrats’ nominee in the 2004 cycle, who, when he married Teresa Heinz, widow of John Heinz, the Republican senator, fell heir to all this in one swoop. And some swoop it was, consisting of spectacular digs in five first class settings: the Heinz family house in Fox Chapel near Pittsburgh; a mansion in Georgetown; a beach house in Nantucket; a ski lodge in Idaho (shipped over stone by stone from Great Britain); and a $6.9 million town house on Boston’s Beacon Hill. The combined square footage of these spreads is unknown, but they had an aggregate value of almost $30 million when he was running for president in 2004. 

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