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Fanfare for the Common Man

Politicians love to boast of their humble origins, but it has little to do with the lives they actually lead.

March 12, 2015

America is a land where it has been more than three decades since the voters elected a president who did not attend Yale or Harvard. In fact, a recent race (2004) pitted members of the same Yale secret society, Skull and Bones, against each other. And it is quite plausible that 2016 could end up as the Deja Vu Election—Bush versus Clinton all over again with the torch passed to new family members.

This is all occurring during an era when the gap between the mega-rich and everyone else is beginning to make the Gilded Age look like the French Revolution. And we are at the beginning of the first presidential primary season in history when the courting of Super PAC donors is treated as more important than wooing voters.

But fear not for America remains the Opportunity Society, the land of upwardly mobile strivers who can achieve anything if they just set their GPS toward presidential politics.

As Jonathan Martin pointed out this week in The New York Times, 2016 candidates like Hillary Clinton sound like their family histories “could have come from the pages of a Theodore Dreiser novel.” Clinton’s bootstraps saga begins with her grandfather, “a factory worker, started at the age of 11, worked until he was 65 and got to retire.”

The Republicans, as the Times article explains, are laying on the just-folks stories in an effort to differentiate themselves from the privileged background of Jeb Bush. So Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announces, “Unlike some out there, I didn’t inherit fame or fortune from my family.” Sen. Marco Rubio, the child of immigrants from Cuba, stresses that his parents “had little money, no connections, quite frankly barely spoke the language.” And desperate to compete, Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, goes with his father working “at an ice cream plant in Newark, New Jersey, to put himself through college at night.”

This embellishing of common man roots has a long tradition in American politics. In 1840, William Henry Harrison, whose landowner father had signed the Declaration of Independence, was portrayed as a frontiersman who wanted to sit home in a log cabin with his jug of hard cider. Abe Lincoln, after all, was known as the Rail Splitter not the Railroad Lawyer. And the 2004 Democratic race featured John Edwards (“the son of a millworker”), Dick Gephardt (“My dad was a milk-truck driver”) and Joe Lieberman, who punctuated virtually every sentence with “only in America.”

What has been different and troubling in recent years is the growing gap between a candidate’s hardscrabble childhood (real or imagined) and his or her current life along the corridors of power.

Six decades ago, Harry Truman (as his biographer David McCullough tells it) returned home to Independence, Missouri, “without salary or pension. He had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month.” Feel free to contrast Truman in 1953 with Hillary Clinton’s heartfelt claim that “we were dead broke” when she and her husband left the White House in 2001.

As politics merges with the celebrity culture, all major politicians, when they are out of office, can rake in more money with a few paid speeches than the average American family makes in a year. Even if they cannot get a Hillary Clinton-sized book advance (and who other than Pope Francis could?), politicians like Mike Huckabee make a good living churning out literary classics like God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. And business opportunities always seem to drop in the laps of famous politicians. As The New York Times reports, when Jeb Bush ended his two terms as Florida governor in 2007, he “confided in friends a desire to build his personal wealth, which he could not do as a public servant.” 

Porous ethics laws also allow prominent politicians to wallow in luxury like partners in a hedge fund on federal salaries. Aaron Schock, an up-and-coming GOP Illinois congressman, has been living the Downton Abbey Life (complete with the redecoration of his House office in the style of the TV series) fueled by campaign and government money. Schock represents Peoria where his spending habits may not be playing well with the voters. Asked by Politico if his lush life on the road violated federal ethics laws, Schock offered a response that should be featured in public relations textbooks under the heading of “What Not To Say.” Schock’s less than convincing answer: “Well, I certainly hope not. I’m not an attorney.”

Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has been gleefully exploiting a loophole in New Jersey law that allows unlimited gifts from personal friends. Christie’s artful solution: Everyone wealthy is a personal friend. So he accepted $30,000 in five-star hotel rooms for his family because King Abdullah II of Jordan is a personal friend. Ditto for plane fare and luxury box seats provided by Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. For Jones, too, is a personal friend.

The real problem—which Schock’s and Christie’s behavior illustrates—is that it is psychologically hard to spend your days and nights in the company of billionaires and Super PAC barons without feeling entitled to live like they do. It is the presidential candidate variant of the old lament, “If I’m so smart, why aren’t I rich?" 

Envy is a particularly deadly sin in politics. It can cloud judgment and erode values. But it is also inevitable in a post-Citizens-United world. In 2015, anyone who dreams about the White House will probably spend as much time handshaking in Park Avenue living rooms than in salt-of-the-earth places like Sac City, Iowa.

Even if candidates scrupulously abide by the spirit of ethics rules, the never-ending fund-raising means that they tend to take on the worldview of the wealthy by osmosis. There is, for example, a reason why Democratic presidents over the last two decades have paid more attention to the bond market than to the minimum wage.

Of course, nothing other than a silver-spoon upbringing will prevent presidential candidates from rewriting their early struggles in the style of Horatio Alger. It all brings to mind a maxim of La Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

Little in American political life these days lives up to the patriotic myths of a nation where wealth brings no special privileges and ordinary men and women like Harry Truman can aspire to the White House. But as long as candidates stress their humble beginnings rather than their cosseted adult lives, they give lip service to a belief about how things ought to be. Such is the value of hypocrisy at the beginning of a money-mad presidential campaign.

(Photo: Abe Lincoln, the Rail Splitter; AP)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.