Americans ambivalent about candidate wealth

July 22, 1999|By Julia Keller

THE TOWN was so desperately poor that the little girls had no dolls to play with. Instead, they made do with corn cobs wrapped in rags. On many nights, supper was flour and water mixed with bacon drippings, and even at that, there wasn't enough to go around.

That's the portrait drawn by Robert Caro in his biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. This visual image is gripping because of its insistence that childhood is the crucible of destiny: "[Johnson] came out of the Hill Country formed, shaped -- into a shape so hard it would never change," Mr. Caro wrote of the 36th president.

Juxtapose that sort of grisly, parched poverty with the wealth and comfort that defined the childhoods of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, front-runners for the major political parties' presidential nominations.

The difference is striking. Does it matter?

Being of two minds

It very well might because in few places does our ambivalence about the moral dimension of wealth stand out in sharper relief than in the political arena.

We are, of course, deliberately getting ahead of ourselves. Either front-runner may fail to get his party's nomination. But it is interesting to contemplate the possibility of a presidential race between two congenitally well-heeled candidates.

Such a contest would be devoid of a mainstay of U.S. political campaigns: the casting of an impoverished background as proof of virtue, of a hard past as automatic evidence of integrity.

From a town called Hope

U.S. political epics resound with that theme, from the log-cabin motif that helped catapult a gangling, horse-faced Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln to the presidency to the biographical bromides frequently offered by President Clinton: the broken home, the abusive stepfather.

Indeed, among the nation's most enduring precepts is the notion that anyone, regardless of wealth or station, can become president.

In fact, the biographies of our great leaders -- political, military, corporate -- always possess an extra zing if the odds were long, if childhood impoverishment seemed to stack the deck against the striving dreamer.

Yet the public is profoundly ambivalent about the importance of wealth in a candidate's background. On one hand, we admire those who rise from humble beginnings to reach high political office. On the other, we subtly mistrust that very same poverty as though it were a stamp of laziness or, worse, a sign of God's official disfavor. Just ask Job.

Even as we dutifully claim to believe that a childhood bereft of unearned pleasures is morally instructive, we relish tales of the wealthy clans to whom such pleasures are endemic.

At times, we seem to agree with 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, who mused, "He who knows how to be poor knows everything." We see poverty as the fire in the kiln of character, hardening the soul against setbacks.

Conversely, according to this formulation, rich people are soft in the center, liable to melt under pressure. They have not suffered their way into wisdom.

Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush come from wealthy, influential families: Mr. Gore, a Harvard University graduate, son of a senator; Mr. Bush, a Yale University graduate, son of a president.

While both men claim to have worked hard in their lives, both also must admit that family connections have been essential to their success.

How would voters react to a race between two men who most likely never fretted over how to pay for their children's new shoes?

Yet as much as we revere tales of obstacles overcome and challenges met, we have elected a great many rich people to public office. But there's no clear pattern of the public favoring either rich or poor candidates.

But, generally, we still want to know that a presidential candidate has hungered for something other than power -- such as, for instance, dinner.

Julia Keller is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in which this first appeared.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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