Sunday, January 07, 2007

Being Wealthy, Running for Office

My friend Andy Jackson, who does some of the best blogging around, points to this article about John Edwards and his wealth, from The New York Post. It seems to say, in none-too-subtle terms, that because Edwards has money, his campaign claims of being an advocate for the poor is hypocritical.

Edwards may be shallow. He may be a politically inexperienced opportunist. He may even be disingenuine. His prescriptions on how to deal with poverty may be way off.

But to insinuate that he's a hypocrite because, as a man of wealth, he can't be concerned for the poor, is deeply unfair.

Rightly or wrongly, one of the reasons that the Framers put age requirements in the Constitution for members of the House and Senate and for the person serving as President, was their desire that only "men of substance," as they would put it, could hold the highest elective offices in the United States.

We can rightly criticize the many biases evident in these requirements and the world view that informed them. The Framers couldn't imagine women holding public office, for example. Nor could they have fathomed people with black, red, or yellow faces doing so. Nor people without property.

But the positive echoes of the requirements the Framers built into the Constitution can be seen in the revered American belief that persons who make successes of themselves in other fields shouldn't rest on their laurels, but should instead see that financial security provides one with the freedom to retire from daily work life and turn instead, to public service.

This was precisely the path pursued by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin amassed such a personal fortune that he was able not only to spend decades of a long life serving his country, he also was able to leave millions to the city of Philadelphia, an inheritance on which it still draws!

Others have adhered to this tradition. From Senator Prescott Bush, grandfather of the current President, has come a Bush family tradition of spending one's early years making an independent fortune and once a certain level of comfort is attained, entering politics. Admittedly, given the family wealth and contacts, this is rather easily done by a younger Bush. But the tradition remains so strong that it's been widely reported that as Jeb Bush contemplated a run for Florida governor, his father asked him if he'd set aside enough money to care for his family. (George W. Bush initially violated this family pattern when he ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress in 1978. After that, the rebellious son of George Herbert Walker Bush settled into the usual family pattern, building a personal fortune until he ran for the Texas governorship in 1990.)

I have no evidence that John Edwards is sincere in his concern for the poor. But neither is his wealth evidence of his being insincere.

There is, if you'll pardon the pun, a rich tradition in America of wealthy pols manifesting a deep--and sometimes sincere--concern for the poor. It includes Republican Theodore Roosevelt and his Square Deal, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal, George W. Bush and his compassionate conservatism, and Robert Kennedy, who expressed solidarity with impoverished African-Americans, migrant farmworkers, and the miners of West Virginia.

There are some huge flaws in this tradition of acquiring wealth and then pursuing elective office, to be sure. There are people in our society who have attained success in their fields, but their bank accounts aren't fatter for it. Success isn't always colored green.

I think of coaches, teachers, counselors, factory workers, contractors, mechanics, social workers, preachers, scientists, and others who are able, intelligent, motivated, and caring, but who rarely have the chance to hold public office because they have neither the personal fortunes or the contacts with those possessing wealth needed to get elected.

But having said that, I think it's true that while it's difficult for the wealthy--even the newly wealthy--to identify with the poor, it's not impossible.

There will be plenty of substantive reasons to question John Edwards on a whole host of issues. I'm not defending him and frankly, I don't see him as a viable or compelling candidate for President.

But The Post's leap is not only unfair, it's intellectually lazy and borders on the demagogic.

[Cross-posted at]

[UPDATE: For one blogger's report on John Edwards' recent foray into his birth state of South Carolina, see here. Remember that for his one term in the US Senate, Edwards represented North Carolina.]

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman from The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I was able to convince many of my family and friends in North Carolina to vote for John Edwards was that he grew up in a blue-collar house hold. Not just that, but a household where things were tough, where nothing was ever for sure.

That is the kind of place Pennsylvania had become when I was growing up, and you better believe it meant something for people to have a candidate that understood that in their bones.

It isn't something you can learn and it isn't something you can forget.