The rich are like you and me, only different? Thats the quote that gets passed around. The fact is, being rich becomes a state of mind, a situation which cannot be easily escaped and which frames a persons understanding of the world. Like extreme poverty, wealth warps ones view of the world. It makes it seem like a different place than the one most people experience.
Romney has been putting his foot in the rich mans state of mind with great regularity on the campaign trail. His wife drives a couple of Cadillacs and, at the Daytona 500, he said he is not a big fan of racing, but he knows a couple of people who are team owners (other millionaires in other words). The irony, in case you were out to lunch when reading, is that he was going to NASCAR in the first place to identify with blue collar people and those who dont belong to country clubs and drive Cadillacs and Lexi.
Does any of this matter or it is just another way for reporters who cover the campaigns to justify their endless days of following people around, reporting? It does matter. Most people who vote for a president are voting for a concept, an idea, as represented by a specific candidate. In truth, people vote Republican or Democrat because that is the way theyve always voted, because they share some beliefs of their neighbors and they might pick out one or two ideas or policies that appeal to them. Lower taxes or more support for education or whatever. At the base, there is a far more important hope that is vested in any president.
We want someone who can, at a critical moment, channel the needs and beliefs of ordinary Americans and make it stick. We want someone who will stand up and say, Im not sending American kids to die half way around the world for a lost cause!. Or maybe, Yes, we can raise taxes, but it is going to have to be fair for everyone, the rich and the poor. We want someone to count, at the very top of American power and decision making, for us.
Bill Clinton is the model for a president who seemed to have the interests of the vast middle class, and those who struggle beneath it, in his mind and in his heart. He was expert in giving off the feeling of caring and understanding, having grown up in backwater Arkansas and worked his way into the elite circles of Yale law school. I feel your pain, became a standing joke of his presidency. He was so sympathetic toward other people that some people thought it was all an act. In any case, he had the ability to sense and share the concerns of voters. Without this sense of empathy, Clinton probably would never have become president and almost certainly never have survived the ugly, politically charged impeachment.
Go back further to Franklin Roosevelt, the son of wealth and rather extreme privilege, was another president who enthralled the public with his understanding and sympathy. In his case, it was the trials of the Great Depression and the struggles of WW II that brought his humanity into view and wide acceptance. More than likely, it was his fireside chats, as his radio programs were called, that endeared him to the public. (Roosevelt, we should always remember, was deeply despised by the wealthy and Republicans.)
Ronald Reagan, a mediocre film actor who rose to wealth among the California elite, had a common mans touch from his upbringing in Iowa and his early years as a radio announcer and struggling movie star. He never lost it. People identified with him as a good and kind person and they trusted that he would act as president in the same way. Millions believe that Reagan was fundamentally a good person and they didnt care all that much about his policies. (From many indications, Reagan probably didnt care that much about government in general. In total days, he spent just over half of his eight years as president at his hide away ranch in California, probably the first president in our history to spend more time out of the White House than in it.)
Romney, should he be elected president, has laid the ground work for a special kind of estrangement from the America he wishes to govern. He would be entirely comfortable in any setting where the rich gather to drink cocktails, eat hors d'oeuvres and congratulate each other on how well they are doing, but, ah, you might want to think again before inviting him back to a NASCAR race. Im not even sure hed be comfortable at a good olAmerican baseball game.
How does one explain his rich mans foot-in-mouth disease? He is the son of a man who was governor of Michigan, head of the American Motors Company (later merged with Chrysler) and a cabinet officer in the Nixon administration. He has spent his whole adult life having lots of money and he has made bushel baskets more of it during the last 30 years (somewhere north 200,000,000 dollars, in fact). He is known, interestingly, among the people who used to work with him as a skinflint, someone who would want to watch a dollar bill scream before spending it.
Romney is not merely out of touch, he has a knack for showing how out of touch it is again and again. He just seems unable to understand that the life he lives is far, far different from that of most Americans. That is, in fact, one of the warp field affects of wealth: it distorts ones view of the world and puts experience out of reach.
We all suffer from observational prejudice, which means we think that which we see is the most important thing. The wealthy have the same general problems with maintaining good health and facing dangers on the highways or when traveling, but they have solutions to the multitude of other problems readily at hand. Over time, they forget what the more dire problems, like not being able to pay for critical medical care, are like, if they ever knew. They come to assume that everyones life is more or less like their own, just with a few extra luxuries that the poorer people wouldnt know how to truly appreciate anyway. Wealth not only isolates people in the bubble of the rich, but often requires the wealthy to tell themselves useful lies about how those with less money live.
One example of this kind of never-touching-earth life style was seen during Clintons presidency. Two different women candidates were put forward as potential nominees for attorney general. One, Zoe Baird, was asked about her wealth during her confirmation hearings (her name was later withdrawn) and she told the Senate committee that she and her husband live just like other Americans on their 400,000 dollar annual income. (about 600,000 in todays dollars). Someone making 35 thousand a year must have wondered what she meant knowing t hat it would take them more than ten years to earn as much as one of hers. Her kind of view, however, is rather common in the distortion field of wealth. The mind boggles at what she must have meant when most wealthy people drive cars that cost 50 thousand or more, take vacations costing 400 to a thousand a night or more and spend 6o thousand a year on prep school for each of their kids.
It seems that Mitt Romney lives inside that kind of distortion field and his problem is that he has not been able to get out of it while running for president. If we were electing a king, he would be a great choice. Kings and queens are supposed to be above the people and perhaps fairly stupid about ordinary problems.
Most Americans, despite the log cabin myth of old, expect a president to be different from them. We dont generally like to elect failures as presidents and most have been taken from people of wealth. After all, we select people who have been successful and, in America, success generally implies a degree of wealth. The most recent president who celebrated his ordinary roots was Jimmy Carter, but he was not a peanut farmer as he has been identified, but rather a wholesale purchaser and seller of other peoples peanuts. He was more a peanut processor, a businessman, and ex-Naval officer and governor, than he was a farmer, but he played up his south Georgia roots during the campaign and the image stuck. It was too much fun for the media to ignore. Coming after the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon, the ideal of the common man, real or not, was too good to pass up.
While we want our presidents to have the common touch, we also want them to be special, outstanding people worthy of being symbols for the nation. This contradiction is a bit much. Few presidents manage to be both, but Abraham Lincoln and his successor, U.S. Grant, filled those requirements and then some. But they lived in the age before radio, television, the Internet and everything else now that magnifies what is said. The failures each had in their lives would be played up to the hilt now, making them seem unworthy of the office. In all likelihood, neither could be elected were they alive now.
Are we asking too much in our presidents? Yes, it is an elite job for people of accomplishment, but we need, still, people who remember and understand what ordinary life is like so they can, at critical moments, represent our broadest national interests. Romney is giving few people faith that he could accomplish this difficult, almost impossible balance. He comes off as someone who is so far out of touch that nothing could save him. Running for president is very difficult. One of the most problematic is making the transition from daily life to a situation in which every word is measured and judged. Romney has failed that task.
Doug Terry, 2.29.12