In politics, money talks -- just don't talk about it

Wealth: Presidential hopefuls juggle appealing to the common man while benefiting from their sizable bank accounts.

Election 2004

July 25, 2004|By Paul Burka | Paul Burka,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The New Testament tells us that it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Political heaven, though, is a different story. Just look at the national tickets of the two major parties.

Recent news articles have estimated that the combined holdings of the four candidates for president and vice president fall between $600 million and $1 billion.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and John Edwards all have reported assets in the tens of millions of dollars, but none is in John F. Kerry's league: between $27 million and $57 million in assets that he owns personally or jointly with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, plus $500 million to $800 million that Kerry's wife inherited from her late husband, an heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune.

Should voters care about individual wealth? Some would argue that it is a trivial subject compared with the issues in the forefront of the campaign: Iraq, homeland security and a fragile economy, plus the usual assortment of social topics. But wealth has always been a factor in U.S. politics, starting with George Washington, who was reputed to be the richest man in America. He owned not only Mount Vernon and its slaves but also thousands of acres from New York to the Ohio River, as well as bank stocks and U.S. securities.

In politics, as in life, wealth has both benefits and pitfalls. Some voters feel that wealthy politicians are more trustworthy and less likely to be tempted by corruption than those who are less well off. A more tangible benefit is that a wealthy candidate doesn't have to worry about working his way up the ladder. He can start by running for governor or senator or even president, as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes did.

The pitfall is that a wealthy candidate may be open to attack for trying to buy his way into office -- or, as was the case for John F. Kennedy in 1960, that his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was trying to do so for him. Two years before that election, the father's lavish spending was parodied in a skit at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, in which the son was portrayed singing "Just Send the Bill to Daddy." In his speech that followed, Kennedy read from what he said was a telegram from his father: "Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

Another pitfall is that wealth can become a character issue. It raises two questions: How did the candidate get rich? And how did getting rich affect him or her? The most common answer to the first question, and the safest, is by birth into a prominent family. This category includes most of the early presidents, and, more recently, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and both Bushes. More likely to run into trouble are politicians who weren't to the manor born but who yearn to strike it rich on their own. The word "Whitewater" sums up the political perils inherent in the too-eager pursuit of wealth.

Three of the four national-ticket candidates this year have faced questions about the way they made their money when they were not in politics.

Edwards won verdicts and settlements totaling $150 million as a trial attorney, a profession that is anathema to big and small businesses and the Republican Party. The president of the American Tort Reform Association calls him "a wealthy personal injury lawyer masquerading as a man of the regular people."

Cheney's albatross, of course, is Halliburton, the oilfield services and construction company where he earned $44 million as chief executive and continues to receive $150,000 a year in deferred compensation. This would not be an issue if his former company had not received $11 billion in government contracts in Iraq.

As for George W. Bush, questions about his sale of his faltering oil company, which eventually was absorbed by Harken Energy, and the subsequent sale of the stock he received in the deal, surfaced in his 1994 race for governor of Texas, the 2000 presidential campaign, and again in 2002. Bush, a director of Harken, sold the stock for $848,000 two months before it began its fall from $4 a share to $1. The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a report in 1991 saying it had insufficient evidence to determine whether Bush had inside information.

Perhaps the biggest danger of wealth, combined with the isolation of high political office, is that it can cause a politician to lose touch with everyday life. This happened to the elder George Bush during his doomed 1992 re-election campaign, when he professed astonishment at the electronic scanners used in grocery lines. No democratic politician can withstand appearing to be out of touch with the people.

Attuned to the risk, Theodore Roosevelt warned his successor, William Howard Taft, to soft-pedal his affection for golf, which was then regarded as a rich man's sport. "You never saw a photograph of me playing tennis," Roosevelt wrote. "Photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal."

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