The Wealth Of Presidents

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In the 1964 campaign President Johnson allowed that his wealth was about $3.5 million. The auditors said in their report that the property values given were “not intended to indicate values that might be realized if investments were sold.” In short, they were based on original cost. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Dean Burch, immediately attacked the form of the Johnson report, stating that a presentation of this kind was “somewhat like listing the value of Manhattan Island at $24.” Life conducted its own “investigation” into Johnson’s property holdings and arrived at a figure of $14 million. Whether the man in the street could not “feel” the difference between Johnson’s figure and the larger unofficial one—or for whatever reason—the subject did not seem to exert a measurable influence on the outcome of the election. Still, it is impressive that the Populist notion that a rich man is necessarily a bad man was believed to be operating still. The burden of this legend was borne by both major parties: Senator Barry Goldwater’s statement of his wealth as being $1.7 million was criticized by the Democrats as being too low.

Vice-presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey brought some welcome humor into the discussion when he listed among his assets “$100 in possession” and declared in his report that he was ineligible both for assistance under the anti-poverty program and for membership in a millionaire’s club. But, he concluded, there will “be enough there to take care of mother.”

This brief survey instructs us that in travelling on the path toward the White House, grinding poverty, as everywhere else in our society, is an almost insurmountable handicap. But the affection for the underdog which seems a necessary part of the democratic ideology appears to make rag men who became rich men especially anointed to lead the nation. At the same time, the facts explaining how a President’s fortune was acquired must be made as invisible—and therefore as mysterious—as possible. Above all, Presidents can neither complain nor boast about their finances. (Only Chester Arthur had a public reputation as a sybarite.) They must appear to be without concern about such ordinary matters even when they are greatly troubled by them. Nevertheless, in a republic, which must recruit its leaders from the rolls of ordinary men, Presidents, like their fellow citizens, will reach their destiny with wallets of varying thicknesses and with records of varying success in acquiring the goods of this life. How they have fared financially while journeying on the road to power will continue to titillate news-seekers as well as gossips. And, in the current style of American political practice, an open balance sheet will continue to be an aspect of the nakedness democratic leaders must endure in public.

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