"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.
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.
To balance his ticket, he tapped John Edwards of North Carolina, who had made nearly $60 million in his prior career as a tear-jerking lawyer, and, while campaigning on behalf of children too poor to afford coats in the winter, was soon to start building a spread in his home state that seemed like four houses in one. The Carolina Journal reported that the main building was 10,400 square feet, connected by a 2,200-square-foot enclosure to a 15,600-square-foot “recreational building,” housing a basketball court, a squash court, two stages, bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms, a swimming pool, a four story tower, and a room called “John’s Lounge.” Edwards, who talked incessantly of the poor, might have served them better if he had just built the main house and given the cost of the rest to a neighborhood charity. That would have bought a whole lot of coats.
In July 2010, as Bill and Hillary Clinton were throwing a $2-3 million-plus wedding for their daughter Chelsea (of which $11,000 went for a gluten-free wedding cake) and Michelle Obama was planning a lavish vacation to Spain’s Costa del Sol, the Boston Herald revealed that John Kerry was the owner of the Isabel, a 76-foot, $7 million yacht custom-made in New Zealand, which he had kept at a dock in Newport, Rhode Island, to avoid paying an estimated $500,000 in Massachusetts state tax. The boat, according to the brochure of the company, had two VIP suites (and one for the help), a wet bar, cold wine storage, and seated six around a custom-made table of Edwardian style ornate varnished teak. Add this to the Heinz-Kerrys’ five land-based places of residence, and they now have in all six luxury “houses,” each estimated at over $4 million, for a total of $36 million.
If “$300 will put you on the briny in a fine sit-on kayak, Kerry’s tax bill alone could guarantee summer fun for 1,666 Bay State households,” the Boston Herald reported, adding that if this was too primitive, a 10-year-old 24-foot Bayliner could be had for $30,000. Kerry “might not want to be seen in one,” the paper conceded, “but for what he’s been shelling out in taxes, he could be the proud owner of 16 of them, and still have about six months of his average constituent’s take-home pay.”
As all this played out against the recession, Michelle Obama, who has the use of the White House, Camp David, and the family manse in Chicago, took off for Spain on Air Force Two with her daughter, a few pals, and several dozen members of the Secret Service, blocking off 60 to 70 rooms in a hotel described as a “millionaire’s playground” where rooms went for between $400 and $6,500 a night. For the next five or so days, people in the Gulf states and elsewhere were treated to film of her enjoying the oil-free beaches and waters, seeing the sights in Jackie-O sunglasses, being ferried by plane to Majorca for lunch with Spain’s royal family, and taking the waters on a beach near the ocean, which had been specially cleared by police. The cost to the public was estimated at close to $375,000. Once, as National Review’s Jim Geraghty notes, the Obamas had seemed a refreshing and sensible couple, “comparably normal by . . . candidate standards, a successful couple with adorable children . . .[who] talked about paying off student loans.” This was before “vacations so frequent they . . . blur together,” and “entertaining with $59 per pound Wagyu steak, [and] fundraisers with quail egg and caviar and salmon ceviche.”
Al Gore owns four homes, one boat, and gorges on kilowatts while urging the world to make small carbon footprints. John Edwards crusades for the destitute while building a palace. John Kerry promotes higher taxes while dodging those on a $7 million yacht he bought in a recession. Michelle Obama urges young people to reject high-paying jobs in the business world for nonprofits and community service, while indulging a taste for designer couture, expensive vacations, and designer sports sneakers, which she wore while feeding the poor.
What’s wrong with these pictures? Two things. First, the hypocrisy undercuts the moral authority, and makes it ridiculous. Second, it’s a mega leap up from what looks from the outside to be not that much more than upper-middle-class comfort—nice house in town, nice country house, nice small sailboats, nice American cars—to the mega-rich level of yachts and multiple mansions, available to only a very small fraction of the upper crust: rock stars, sports stars, film stars, nouveau-riche captains of industry, and others not known for their modesty, balance, and sense of restraint. Live on a level accessible to some of the people you govern, and you send the message that you are a citizen. Live like a king, and you send the message that you think you are one, that you see nothing amiss in appropriating far more than what your politics say is your share of the universe; that you are entitled because you are worth more than others, that this is your due. Someday, Democrats should sit down and ask themselves how they came in such a short space of time to produce so many marquee figures who wanted to talk like French revolutionaries while living like French royalty. Ask Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or the Bushes to spend $7 million on anything, and they would have had heart attacks. Ask them to buy a yacht during a recession, and they would have been aghast.
Fitzgerald said the rich were soft where others were hard (and vice-versa), and he may have been accurate. But these rich are soft in the head in a way that is nothing but hard on their party, which needs to restore a previous model. There was, after all, no “Jack’s Lounge” at Hyannis and no “FDR’s Lounge” at Hyde Park.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.