Candidate wealth can't predict leadership

July 30, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The video biography of Vice President Al Gore being distributed by his campaign reports thoroughly on his roots in Carthage, Tenn., site of the family farm. But it does not mention that he grew up in a luxury hotel suite in Washington and attended tony preparatory school.

But if the vice president wins the Democratic nomination and ends up running against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, he wouldn't have to worry about his GOP foe making a point of his privileged background. After all, Mr. Bush followed his daddy to prep school and Yale University.

Mr. Gore's competitor for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley, is obliquely touching on the vice president's privileged life by talking about how he has had different "life experiences" than some of the other candidates.

Small-town roots

While the former senator from New Jersey grew up in a middle-class family in small-town Missouri, Mr. Bradley did enjoy the lifestyle of a professional athlete playing with the New York Knicks, something that sets him apart from most Americans.

One asset Mr. Bradley can claim is his friendship with many African-Americans, including former teammates, which may give him an easier rapport with black Americans.

As for Mr. Bush, the only rival for the GOP nomination with a more compelling resume is Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He grew up as the son an admiral, but what sets him apart, of course, is those six years he spent as a brutally treated prisoner of war in Hanoi. None of those with even the most remote chance of overtaking Mr. Bush has worked his or her way up from humble beginnings.

The notion of electing another elitist from a prominent family is not necessarily a cause for complaint. We have had some presidents from wealthy families who have shown themselves very much up to the job, including John Kennedy and the Roosevelts. We've had presidents from modest circumstances who did not turn out to be champions of the little people, such as Richard M. Nixon.

The background of a candidate should tell us at least the kind of people and situations to which they have been exposed most often. But it doesn't necessarily tell us how perceptive they are about the real concerns of those from other strata of society.

Losing touch

In many cases, people who reach the level at which they have a realistic chance of winning a presidential nomination have been in politics so long they have lost touch with those outside their immediate circle.

The more pointed questions we should be asking presidential candidates are those about the people around them. For example, Mr. Gore's campaign is packed with people who parlayed positions on his staff into big-bucks jobs as lobbyists and lawyers, exploiting the resumes he helped them build.

Mr. Bush has released the names of 115 people who already have raised $100,000 each for his campaign, which is expected to give them greater access to him if he's elected. It is not likely that they can tell him much about the problems of a single mother trying to find day care.

There is, of course, no fixed prescription for the kind of president Americans would like to see succeed President Clinton.

Mr. Clinton came from humble beginnings and demonstrated repeatedly his ability to connect with those in need. But his other flaws robbed him of the ability to lead the nation effectively.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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