When Jack Kennedy was murdered I was a school kid just outside New York City. I ran right home after the closing bell to flip on the TV. That’s where I watched a bunch of reporters pounce on Richard Nixon as he got off a plane at Idlewild. He’d been in the air from the West Coast when he’d gotten word of the Kennedy assassination. Reporters wanted his reaction.
Nixon then said something like this, “President Kennedy and I had political differences, but his assassination is a tragedy beyond words. This was a bright, gifted man with great inherited wealth who could have spent his life lolling on the beach on the Riviera with a blonde on each arm. Nobody would have found fault with him for doing that. Instead, he served his country in war, in Congress and in the White House and ended up losing his life at an early age in the performance of that service.”
Nixon went on for a minute or so more. He said that he’d been born into a middle-class family, had gone into politics to make a living and took pride in his own public service, but he admired people like Kennedy who hadn’t had to do what he’d done but had done it anyway.
Jack Kennedy never made much money on his own. Before he got into politics, he’d been a reporter and author for a while. Let me assure you, few people get rich that way. Kennedy’s old man had made the money, making John F. Kennedy one of the 80 per cent of American Presidents who were millionaires, just like half the people in Congress today are millionaires.
The vast majority of rich people, in politics and out, inherited their money from some ferocious forbear who worked hard, played all the angles, cut corners when it came to the law and died exhausted. Some, like George Washington, married their money. Others, like Mitt Romney, inherited a bundle and made it grow.
So, now there’s a big fuss brewing because Mitt Romney has 250 million bucks and pays a lower tax rate than people who live on salary or hourly wages. If this troubles you, then you should know that everybody in this 2012 race now or earlier is rich, and my guess is that none of them pays as much as you do in taxes in percentage terms.
Newt Gingrich is worth around $20 million, which he earned on his own. Rick Perry is worth $3 million, mostly from his family’s cotton farm. Ron Paul is worth something like $5 million from serving in Congress and practicing medicine. Rick Santorum is worth about $2.5 million from Congress and practicing law. Herman Cain is worth about $3 million from his decades as business executive. Michele Bachmann is worth $3 million.
Oh, and the guy who’s President now? Barack Obama is worth between $5 million and $10 million, mostly from book royalties.
What’s the point? Only that this country, from the very beginning, has been pretty much run by rich guys, most of them just lucky rich guys, and nothing much has changed. The last President we had who wasn’t a millionaire was Harry Truman, and he left office 60 years ago. For what it’s worth, our best President, Abe Lincoln, wasn’t a millionaire, either.
The reality is that Herman Cain was mostly right when he said, “If you’re not rich it’s your own fault.” Cain set out to get rich from the start. It apparently was his mission in life – that and chasing babes. For most people, though, getting rich isn’t the point of life. What most people want is enough income to support themselves and their families in some measure of comfort. They want enough money to provide their kids with all the education the kids want. They want enough to spend a few years of leisure in their old age before they kick off. In other words, they’re not as motivated by greed as Herman Cain was and, apparently, still is.
So what we end up with, whether anybody likes it or not, is a country run by the rich, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. Do we “envy” them, as Mitt Romney charges with such unspeakably distasteful arrogance? Well, not the ones who go into politics. We watch them called names and lied about and out there with their phony smiles sucking up to voters with a median household net worth of about 90 grand – more like $30,000, actually, if you subtract home equity.
They want to lead; we want to be led and left alone. We just want that done by somebody who has some gut grasp of the hardships we can end up facing because, unlike these wealthy politicians, we didn’t have rich parents and decided not to spend our entire lives scraping, bowing and groveling for every dime.
And, so far in this presidential race, I haven’t seen much empathy on the part of these rich politicians for any problems that they don’t face personally.