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Lifestyles of the Rich and Political

Shouldn’t our candidates’ consumption be less conspicuous?

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Yacht Photo

John Kerry's Yacht

Dear Mitt Romney: Please don’t knock down your $12 million beach house in California and replace it with a new one almost four times its size. At least not while you’re running for president and your campaign has yet to catch fire. We know it gets cramped, but a lot of other people are cramped also, what with either being unemployed and having to move in with their relatives, or putting up college grad children who cannot find jobs, or having to downsize from the house they once lived in, but now can’t afford. Doing this now could seem like a poke in the eye to these people, whose trust funds weren’t quite the size of yours, and who saw their retirement funds dwindle through no fault of their own. For the next few years, your guests can find a motel, double up, or crash on the floor in a sleeping bag. If you have to go big, you can do it in the third year of your first term, when thanks to you, the economy is once again booming. Or you can do it after you’ve lost (either the primaries or the presidential election), when you will be your own man again and quite free to do and to spend as you please. 

Dear Barack Obama: Do go ahead and have a lovely vacation, enjoying life with your wife and adorable children, but not at a 28-acre estate on Martha’s Vineyard that rents for $50,000 a week. Not when you’re running for reelection, and your approval ratings are down around 40 percent, when long-term unemployment has become a huge problem, and the country’s credit rating has been downgraded for the first time in history. If you need room to relax, you have three fairly large houses, two of them owned and maintained by the public, one of them in a nice rural setting, and with many amenities. (There is also a big empty house in Chicago that you haven’t seen for quite a long time.) For many people, $50,000 would be a big down payment for a house in which they would live on a permanent basis. For some, it would buy a house in its entirety. For most (though perhaps not for your friends), it would amount to their entire income for a year. That’s what you might call quite an income disparity. 

People have noted that your summers (and especially Augusts) tend to be difficult, perhaps because they are the times that you are at the Vineyard, where the gap between what you preach and the way that you live is especially evident. Perhaps, like Mitt, you might be well advised to defer large expenses until such time as you are back in the private sector, which, in both of your cases, may be sooner than either of you had planned. Perhaps in 2013, you will be free to live on the Vineyard on a year-round basis. And, if he wants another beach house, this on the Atlantic, Mitt could build one near you.

Dear Newt: Close out all accounts outstanding at Tiffany’s, and do not open them ever again. If you must visit the place, take a tip from the film, and bring in a ring from a Cracker -Jack box for engraving. Otherwise, never allow the idea of jewelry to cross your mind. In your case, it is less the money spent than what was bought with it: A house, however extravagant, is a necessity, and has a large, solid, aspect. A jewel is the essence of extravagance, also of uselessness, and is thus nothing more than a frill. Buying jewels by the quart or the carton is associated with sports stars and rock stars, playboys and showgirls, malefactors of great wealth (who have a bad name already), or with Ari Onassis trying to impress Jackie Kennedy, or Richard Burton when he tried to please Liz. It is not associated with great politicians, statesmen, or philosopher kings. Your chances of being rated among them have taken on water. Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend on different occasions. They are not, and will never be, yours.

Dear John [Mr. Teresa Heinz] Kerry: Are you having some down time on the Isabel, the yacht you bought for about $7 million just as the recession closed in? We hope you enjoy the varnished teak table, the wine storage, the wet bar, and the customized suites for the help. (And did you get around to paying the $500,000 in taxes that you tried to evade by docking the yacht out of state?) How nice to know you have someplace to go when your five mansions on land will not satisfy. Do you remember that right after your loss in 2004 to George Bush, a reporter (on Washington Week in Review, as we seem to recall) praised you for having been “true to your lifestyle,” for not playing the hick as Bush did, but exercising your right to revel in money, to ski in Sun Valley, take your jets everywhere, and go windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket wearing those cute flowered shorts? Did you ever think that this might have been one of the reasons you lost?

Or was it because you and your running mate had assembled more wealth between you​—​not to mention more square feet of real estate, most of it in very good neighborhoods​—​than any ticket before or since? And you, John Edwards, with your 28,000-square-foot compound, to which to repair when you tired yourself from your antipoverty speeches! Too bad you never got much use out of “John’s Lounge.” Perhaps when the verdict comes in from your trial for misappropriation of campaign funds​—​such as shaking down the 100-year-old Mellon heiress for the cash to sequester the girlfriend who was having your baby​—​you may live for a few years in federal housing and get to find out how the Other America lives. A signal event in your campaign was the day in which the two of you and your wives went to a diner to commune with the plain folk, poked away in dismay at one or two of the dishes, and then decamped to a posh yacht club to do your real eating. Perhaps the folks had you both figured out.

Dear Rick Perry (or whoever else gets the GOP nomination, or anyone in either party who may contemplate a run for president ever): Please heed the words of columnist Mark Steyn and promise to restore a sense of thrift and proportion to the conduct of public affairs. 

One by one, the five examples cited above may not seem that damning, but they are becoming more and more common, and together suggest a large and bipartisan governing stratum that is completely insulated and immune from the strains that beset normal people, not to mention addicted to luxury, privilege, and grandeur to a toxic extent. Add private wealth (augmented by book and TV fees) to the perks and the freebies provided by government, and you have a class to whom money​—​its own, or that of the people​—​means little to nothing at all. Obama uses Air Force One more or less as a taxi, taking it to New York for date night (and tying up the whole city with his security retinue), taking it, as Steyn tells us, “from Washington to a Democratic party retreat in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles away.” He toured the Midwest in a million-dollar-plus bus that looked like a hearse out of Star Wars, trailed through the hinterland by a 40-car motorcade containing more people than some towns. (Air Force One is built to hold 500 people, and costs $200,000 an hour to run.)

Nancy Pelosi, herself a millionaire many times over, commandeered an Army jet during her tenure as speaker to go back and forth from California to Washington. As Steyn says, this reeks more of Latin America than of our early republic, and makes one realize why there was a big run on tumbrils in late 18th-century France.

The excuses made for these acute spendaholics make little or no sense at all. Families such as the Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys have been well-to-do, but they never indulged in such orgies of spending. They lived like exceedingly comfortable upper-middle-class people, not the spoiled darlings of professional sports or Hollywood. Their houses could fit in one wing of the John Edwards homestead. They were land-poor compared with today’s mega-mansion grandees. 

Many conservatives say it’s their money, which they can spend as they like, which is true. But the rest of us are free to watch them doing their spending, and then make our own judgments as to whether overindulgence in the goods of the world may in fact speak to a character weakness, like overindulgence in women and drink. One of the things that injured John Kerry was the sense he conveyed that the wealth he enjoyed (which was about five degrees of separation from the people who had earned it) was his just deserts, bestowed on him as a wonderful person by a wise and benificent Providence. The first JFK, who had a sense of proportion (and gave much of his earnings to various charities), would never have made that mistake.

Because of the crushing burdens of our national debt, today’s political leaders will have to oversee a vast scaling-back of programs and spending, for which they will need a super-sized quotient of moral authority. How can they ask people who do not have much money to accept reductions in benefits when they are supersizing their third house and first seaside mansion, gorging themselves on yachts and diamonds, and taking vacations at $50,000 per week? 

So if you’re contemplating a run for the White House these days, you might want to join Steyn in his call for “restoring the lifestyle of the president to something Calvin Coolidge might recognize.” It might even be a winning strategy.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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