- Historic Sites
The Wealth Of Presidents
At least one President was a multi-millionaire. Another had gone hroke. Several had made fortunes in land speculations or memoir-writing, while one had lost everything in trade. Two were so well-off they refused the salary; another considered resigning because he couldn’t live on it. One thing all have discovered: The American people, who have elected some rich men and some poor men (though no beggars or thieves), are never indifferent to
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Soon after he became President, John Adams wrote forlornly from Philadelphia to his beloved Abigail about the exorbitant tost of maintaining his position. Glumly he declared, “I expect to be obliged to resign in six months because I can’t live. Fortunately, he had just received a gigantic cheese as a gilt from the state of Rhode Island. Perhaps, he mused, when his money was gone he could live oil the cheese.
If not all our Presidents have felt so discouraged about their personal finances, very few have been able to live without self-consciousness of their estate. They have learned that the American people respond ambivalently to the fact of a President who is wealthy: to some it implies that he is accustomed to managing large affairs successfully, but to others it seems to suggest that he cannot possibly be attuned to the needs of the ordinary citizen.
In general, though, regardless of how the bank account of a President-elect has stood on the eve of his inauguration, he comes before the public pleading directly or through his “image-makers” the humbleness of little means. This is the tribute he pays to the democratic idea that leaders ought to come from the modest middle of the ranks.
The classic picture of the acceptable President was provided by James A. Garfield’s campaign biographer, who wrote that Garfield had started from home on his rise to fame with his clothes in a bundle at the end of a stick over his shoulder. “Amid prayers and forebodings, the poor mother had bidden him goodbye, and he carried witli him her kiss and her blessing, as his only fortune.”
Lyndon Johnson after becoming President talked of his origins in this fashion: “I know what poverty means to people. I have been unemployed. I have stood in an employment office, waiting for an assignment and a placement. I have shined shoes as a boy. I have worked on a highway crew from daylight until dark for a dollar a day.”
Such rags-to-richcs stories, common from the midnineteenth century on, have long touched a responsive chord in a society that has made self-help and self-improvement a mark of distinction. Hut the relationship between wealth and high office docs not seem to have become a lively issue until the 1880’s—possibly because during that period Puritan America was trying to find moral justification for the relatively easier accumulation of money. An article about rich men in politics appeared in 1887 in The Chautauquan , the organ of the most famous self-education movement in America. The author, in defending politicians who were rich, asked rhetorically. “Would you deny to rich men the reward of political service or ambition simply because of their wealth?” He offered his answer: “[The] impecunious but unprincipled politician may do as much to damage political morals and corrupt the purity of government as any rich man will be likely to do.”
Still, the public as a whole remained uncomfortable that men of wealth should run for the Presidency, although not so uncomfortable that it would not elect them. As a result, a boyhood spent in poverty could be (especially for the millionaire candidate) an important advantage. It provided a presidential type suitable for the age of Horatio Alger. It suggested that despite wealth, the man’s character had been formed well in the stern school of deprivation. And if. in the process of explaining him to the country, the man could be made out to have been a Tom Sawyer—though never a shim urchin—then so much the better lor his chances, and for the country.
Despite the public’s apparent affection for poverty in the early life of a President, a triumph over that handicap is indispensable. No impoverished man has ever been elected to the Presidency. Of the four Chief Executives who were actually born in log cabins—Franklin Pierce, James Huchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and James A. Garfield—all had become moderately wealthy by the time they reached the White House, Fifteen years before Kuchanan became President, for instance, he was reported to have $120,000 “at work for interest.” (All sums of money are based on the value of the dollar in the era of the President being discussed.) Lincoln in 1861 had $9,000 invested in interestbearing securities besides owning a $5,000 house—a considerable achievement.
Nevertheless, being “rich from the start” has never been a roadblock to the top. For example, George Washington’s wealth, which made him one of the richest men in colonial America, played a leading part in obtaining preferment for him. In 1775 the men from Massachusetts had hung back from seizing the lull control of the Revolution in order to push Washington forward. They knew little of his qualities as a leader; they knew him chiefly as a man of means whose help they wanted. Halsted L. Ritter, the most careful student of Washington’s finances, concludes: “His greatness, in the last analysis, rests upon the fact that he was by nature and by thorough training the greatest businessman of his time.” At Washington’s death in 1799, Mount Vernon was worth about 8200,000. His average annual income must have been about 15,000 in the years just before his Presidency began.
Thomas Jefferson’s wealth also smoothed the way to political opportunity. Like all landowners, Jefferson was more easily able to free himself from the bonds of making a living than those engaged in business or in the practice of law. In 1782 only one man in Albemarle County in Virginia, where Jefferson lived, owned more slaves than he did.
Yet if the Virginia Presidents were well-to-do in their heyday, their economic star was waning. Jefferson found in his last year as President that his expenses were $8,000 more than his salary, and at his death in 1826, he was practically bankrupt. Jefferson’s “Great Collaborator,” James Madison, experienced a comparably painful decline in his personal wealth. When he died in 1836, he too was living in relative poverty.
Another Virginian, James Monroe, made up his mind early in his career to live as well as Jefferson—and as near as possible to him. The building he bought, known as Monroe House, still stands, as a part of the University of Virginia. But Monroe’s wealth was more apparent than real. Recent research by Lucius Wilmerding, Jr., has shown the extent to which Monroe spent his years of retirement in trying to obtain reimbursement for money which he said the federal government owed him for salary and expenses while on diplomatic missions.
John Quincy Adams in 1831 stated his opinion of Monroe’s situation with self-righteousness and a patent lack of sympathy: “Mr. Monroe is a very remarkable instance of a man whose life has been a continued series of the most extraordinary good fortune, who has never met with any known disaster, has gone through a splendid career of public service, has received more pecuniary reward from the public than any other man since the existence of the nation, and is now dying, at the age of seventy-two, in wretchedness and beggary.”
Actually, the Virginia Presidents were the victims of bad luck. They were born to wealth in the tobacco country, but within their lifetimes the economic basis of their patrimony had become eroded. All died concerned over the rise of the Kentucky country as a competing tobacco region, and all but Washington lived to feel the impact of cotton-growing as well.
It is instructive that being born of comfortable parents, even after the Virginia dynasty had passed, has been the rule for prospective Presidents throughout American history. Martin Van Buren, for example, who later was an ardent spokesman for the small businessman, came by his viewpoint naturally. He was the son of a prosperous farmer and tavern-keeper from upper New York State. Ulysses Grant, too, had had a good start. His father was a reasonably successful tanner who owned leather-goods stores—property said to be worth between $100,000 and $150,000.
James Buchanan’s father was another farmer-turnedshopkeeper. His accumulation of the world’s goods enabled him to send his son to Dickinson College. Franklin Pierce’s father, a farmer-turned-politician, was able not only to send his offspring to Bowdoin College but later to give him his first political plum, a local postmastership. Rutherford Hayes’ father was a successful farmer and whiskey-distiller. Although he died too soon to help his son, he had a brother who sent Rutherford through college and then through Harvard Law School. James Garfield, remembered as “the Canal Boy” (his stint in that role lasted only ten days), was in fact reared on a thirty-acre farm run by his parents; the family lived in Spartan fashion but not in penury. Moreover, Garfield, like Hayes, had an uncle who staked him to a college education.
The pattern was familiar quite early in the nineteenth century. Presidents were the scions of men-onthe-make. If they knew poverty at all, it was the kind which increasingly affluent Americans always “remembered” rather than experienced. As the money economy developed after the Civil War, people recalled the old days of money scarcity and labelled them, instead, days of poverty, even though they had not been characterized by personal suffering.
The pattern continues to show up in the Chief Executives of the twentieth century. Calvin Coolidge’s father, a farmer and storekeeper in rural Vermont, made an annual profit of $1,200 on a stock of goods worth $10,000. He was easily able to see that his son received a college education. When Calvin as a young lawyer earned $500 a year, he was for the first time freed of dependence on his father’s support. No less important, Coolidge had an inheritance from his grandfather, which he used to set himself up in practice.
To cite an even more recent example, General Eisenhower’s father was a farmer and businessman often “busted” by overoptimistic schemes. But if he could not provide luxuries for his children, he helped teach them the advantage of getting an education. When the youthful Ike was working in a creamery in Kansas, his chief aim was to save money to go to college. Warren Harding was the son of a farmerturned-homeopathic doctor, who was able to send his son to college. Herbert Hoover had a loving uncle who reared him and gave him a modest cash stake to help him through Stanford University.
A proper start in life for a future President, therefore, has involved not only the silver spoon but also the chance to move up the ladder—almost invariably with the help of higher education. The way has never been made smoother by diligent labor as a wage earner. The best arrangement has been to escape as quickly as possible from the thralldom of manual work. James Polk was born with an unusually frail constitution that exempted him from laboring on his father’s farm and pointed him instead toward obtaining an education. Millard Fillmore, the son of a tenant farmer, was bound to a cloth-mill owner as a woolcarder. He realized early that this was not a way to fulfill his burning “ambition for distinction.” For a similar reason Andrew Jackson did not work long as a saddler’s apprentice. And Andrew Johnson made his years as a tailor’s apprentice pay handsomely, but not in the employment of his own skill as a craftsman. In a short time he had five or six tailors working for him in his shop and he rented out a second shop he opened. (His rising fortunes led him to purchase land and, although he later liked to recall his skill with a needle, his real-estate holdings rapidly became his prime livelihood and his wedge into the world of affairs.)
Zachary Taylor’s case is an interesting one. The son of a Kentucky planter, he chose a career in the army, not usually a royal road to financial success. In Taylor’s day, a lieutenant’s wage was !30 a month, and even a major, who might have twenty years of service by the time he got his oak leaves, received only $50. But Taylor had a keen eye for the main chance, and his father helped him find it. The elder Taylor in 1810 gave him a 324-acre farm near the family’s plantation. The son sold his gift at a profit of seventy per cent and invested the proceeds in Kentucky lands. These he soon sold for more than twice what he had paid for them. His fortune having reached $16,000, he invested $2,000 in cash in a small Louisiana plantation that cost $6,000 altogether. In its first year the plantation netted Taylor a profit of $1,500, which he deemed disappointing.
Taylor was fascinated by questions of credit and finance and came to be a master of money management. His wealth increased steadily. Although not all of his investments flourished (in the 1830’s he lost heavily in his Kentucky speculations), by the time he returned from the Mexican War it was estimated conservatively that he was worth between $135,000 and $140,000. The bulk of this fortune was in slaves, valued at about $50,000. But $11,000 was in bank and utility stocks, $7,500 was out on loan, three warehouses he owned were earning $600 a year. At the time of his sudden death in the White House in 1850, he was worth about $200,000.
Speculation did not always reward its practitioners among the future Presidents with success. William Henry Harrison, another army man, is an example of one who was never able to get very far ahead in the daily struggle to take care of his wife and children. The scion of a famous Virginia family—his father had signed the Declaration of Independence—he had to make his own career, because he was a third son. After a glorious term of service in the army, Harrison, still a young man, made an effort to prosper as a civilian. He held a number of territorial posts until he became the governor of the Indiana Territory at $2,000 a year.
This was a large salary, and Harrison drew it for twelve years, but he had eight youngsters to support and see through school. As a result, in the fashion of the day, Harrison tried his hand in various undertakings, like a distillery and a sawmill. He also dabbled in land ventures, but did not succeed in them. In fact, to cover his losses, he found himself draining off the modest profits of his 2,800-acre Ohio farm.
More and more, Harrison came to think that a high public position with a good salary would solve his financial problems. John Quincy Adams stated the case with his customary bluntness: “This person’s thirst for lucrative office is absolutely rabid.” He compared Old Tippecanoe to “a hound on the scent of a hare.” Elected to the Senate in 1825, Harrison shortly afterward got himself named minister to Colombia. Travel in Latin America seems not to have interested him as much as the $9,000 salary and the additional sum of $9,000 for outfitting. In anticipation of the appointment he borrowed $10,000 from the Bank of the United States.
On Harrison’s return to the United States his creditors pounced on him. Plagued by his own obligations, he was also saddled with the debts of his sons. Moreover, bad weather damaged the wheat and corn crops on his farm. As a consequence, he was forced to sell much of his land—and even that did not altogether wipe out his obligations. Possibly if he had lived (he served in the White House for less than a month), his presidential salary would have enabled him—as public wages had sometimes enabled him in the past—to speculate profitably again and to absorb the losses from speculations that went awry.
No one will ever know. What we do know is that for only a handful of men has the Presidency itself been a source of wealth. William Howard Taft confided to Woodrow Wilson on the eve of transferring the White House to him that he had saved $ 100,000 during his term of office. Calvin Coolidge is believed to have saved about $50,000 a year while Chief Executive.
Coolidge’s success can be ascribed in part to the fact that he was the first President allowed by law to defray the expenses of his official entertainment. Of course, his well-known parsimony was no handicap. Colonel Edmund Starling, a Secret Service agent, recounts in his memoirs a discussion he had with Coolidge in the President’s dressing room. Coolidge opened the conversation:
“I gave somebody a dime one afternoon to buy a Collier’s and I didn’t get my nickel back,” he said.
“It wasn’t I,” I said.
“I don’t know who it was,” he said, “but somebody owes me a nickel.”
“I don’t owe you a nickel,” I said.
“I didn’t say you did,” he said, “I don’t know who he was, but he didn’t give me back my nickel.”
Latterly, even such heroic attentiveness to detail has not been helpful. The Presidency has become frightfully expensive. Franklin Roosevelt, a man of independent means, found not only that he could not save anything from his salary but that it cost him $175,000 annually out of his own pocket to stay in the White House.
Upon those few Chief Executives who have arrived at the Presidency not well provided for, the burden has weighed even more heavily. Harry Truman was one of these. He came to the White House with a history of financial disasters behind him. Just before World War I he had borrowed against a future inheritance in order to invest in zinc mines and oil fields in the West. They came to naught. Then came his celebrated partnership in the haberdashery business with his former army buddy, Sergeant Eddie Jacobson. After a booming first year, deflation broke their firm. Truman lost his original investment of $15,000 and another $15,000 he had thrown in, trying to salvage the failing enterprise. As late as 1934, when he was a United States senator, he still had a debt of $9,000, having refused to accept bankruptcy.
As one of the less affluent senators, Truman always had a loan going at a Washington bank, and he unashamedly put his wife on his payroll at $4,500 per year. He stropped razor blades on the palm of his hand, he said, to coax extra shaves from them. It saddened him that he was unable to help his mother when, in 1940, she lost her home through foreclosure.
Truman’s vice-presidential salary made him consistently solvent for the first time in many years. He was able to buy a fourteen-room house in Independence. Becoming President, however, did not immediately make him any richer. He found himself spending $72,000 of the $75,000 presidential salary. Once again Truman had to be mindful of his expenditures. Only after the President’s salary was raised to $100,000 in 1949 and the expense allowance raised from $40,000 to $90,000 was he able to save any money.
By a coincidence Truman was followed in office by another man who, until the eve of the Presidency, had been frustrated in trying to eke out his resources. General Eisenhower, however, had had the good fortune to move from a financially straitened profession to civilian life at a time when affluence was becoming widespread—even embracing old soldiers.
Eisenhower seems not to have been able to accumulate any nest egg until he served in the Philippines in the 1920’s. By 1940 he had saved enough to obtain title to a mortgaged brick house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. When he came to Columbia University in 1948 he had only a few thousand dollars in the bank—which he spent on a new automobile.
It was his war memoirs that made Eisenhower a rich man. He received about !635,000 for his Crusade in Europe . A favorable tax ruling on this windfall enabled him to treat it not as income but as a capital gain. For the first time in his life he had funds for investment.
In general, the lawyers among the Presidents have come to the White House better equipped financially than any other group. Lincoln’s success has already been commented on. Benjamin Harrison’s income as a lawyer in Indiana in the 1870’s was $10,000, an impressive sum. Grover Cleveland, too, had done well. By 1881 he had saved about $75,000. He had a keen eye for good stock investments. (One which was especially profitable was in the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau.) As a leader of the bar of Buffalo, New York, and the possessor of a frugal nature, he made a modest fortune.
Cleveland seems to have been fascinated by the money-making opportunities that he found turning in his direction. He purchased his lovely Oak View estate outside Washington, B.C., for $21,500 and spent additional sums on its improvement. After only a few years he sold it for $140,000—realizing a profit of nearly $100,000 on the transaction. About the time he left the Presidency in 1897 a friend estimated his wealth to be about a third of a million dollars.
That other upstate New Yorker, Martin Van Buren, also built a successful law practice and stayed alert for opportunity. Like Cleveland a thrifty man, he always saved a good deal of his income. Moreover, like Cleveland, he had the advantage of living in a community which was growing very rapidly. His large estate near Oswego rose steeply in value as western New York became more populous. Just as Cleveland would receive large fees as sheriff of Buffalo, Van Buren enjoyed them as surrogate of Columbia County. When he became President in 1837, the value of his fortune was estimated at about $200,000. A notable exception to the rule of wealth among lawyers-become-President was William McKinley. He went bankrupt during the depression of 1893, when he was governor of Ohio, and had to suffer the embarrassment of being “bailed out” by gifts from friends and the general public.
If the lawyers among the Presidents-elect have been better off than men of other professions, they have also been freer of monetary cares after leaving the White House. One of the few who were not was Woodrow Wilson. His Princeton salary—even as president of the university—was probably not much more than $6,000. Even adding to that sum an extra few thousand dollars for lecture fees and royalties on his books and articles, his total income probably never exceeded $10,000 a year. In view of what Taft had confided to him about the “profits” of the Presidency, Wilson must have been disappointed that he himself could save so little. While at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, he had to borrow money to pay his income tax. He had always hoped to own a house overlooking the Potomac River, but he could never afford to buy or build one. Only the generosity of friends made possible his purchase of the house on S Street where he spent his tragic last years.
A nice question that a number of moneyless exPresidents have had to face is whether they might capitalize on the fact of having been President. Wilson, for example, practiced law for about a year after leaving office, but this venture was unsuccessful because of the meticulousness with which he decided which clients he would allow his name to be associated with.
Today it is accepted that a former President can sell his recollections and live on the proceeds. The first to see this possibility was Ulysses S. Grant. There is no more pathetic story than that of Grant, though dying of cancer of the throat, manfully completing his Personal Memoirs of the Civil War, in order to provide for his family. He finished just a few weeks before his death. Published by Mark Twain’s firm, the two volumes eventually brought the Grant family $450,000.
Every President from Theodore Roosevelt’s day to the present who survived his term of office—except Taft and Wilson—has written an autobiography for a handsome sum. Wilson chose not to; he declined an offer of $150,000 for his memoirs of the Peace Conference. (It was also suggested that he permit his estimable History of the American People to be made into a movie, and that he write a biography of Jesus!) Taft’s Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers was not really an autobiography but a study of the presidential office. and as such reached a limited audience. Although Taft was not significantly enriched by the book, he did receive about a thousand dollars apiece for his magazine articles.
Theodore Roosevelt actually became a substantially wealthy man as a result of his post-presidential writing. He received $50,000 from Scribner’s Magazine for an account of his African adventures in 1909. Afterward, he became a contributing editor of Outlook at $12,000 annually. Calvin Coolidge received about $75,000 for his touching but very thin Autobiography; he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column which earned him $203,000 in the single year 1931 he worked at it.
Truman’s memoirs and other books and articles made him moderately wealthy. It is noteworthy, however, that although Eisenhower received special tax consideration for his Crusade in Europe , which was published in Truman’s time as President, Truman’s Memoirs , published during Eisenhower’s tenure, was not accorded a comparable privilege. This was a matter of considerable irritation to Truman.
The reason why former Presidents write about their lives is, of course, not merely to cash in on their years of glory. It is also an occasion to make a personal defense or to clarify the record. As a result, the publication of their books is more than a literary event: it is a part of the political process itself. Despite the fact that a profit is involved, therefore, the effort is generally applauded by the public.
Aside from writing, how can an ex-President without money support himself? It has been reported that when Truman was making ready to leave the White House he asked Secretary of State Dean Acheson how he thought he ought to conduct himself as a former President. Acheson is said to have replied, “… as the American people would have you conduct yourself.”
But what, exactly, does that mean? No one can say with certainty—aside from the avoidance of obvious breaches of good taste. Former Presidents have variously interpreted the obligation they owe to the public for the honor of having been Chief Executive. Two returned to elective office, John Quincy Adams becoming a member of the House of Representatives, Andrew Johnson resuming his seat in the Senate. Neither was criticized significantly: they had conformed to a sense of what was considered appropriate in a democracy.
Most ex-Presidents have gone back to private life, where they have interpreted their obligation variously. Coolidge, for instance, turned down a $75,000-a-year offer from an advertising firm because he believed that accepting it would not be congruous with his conception of the fitness of things. Former President Grant, on the other hand, put all of the capital he accumulated during his Presidency, and a considerable sum borrowed from William H. Vanderbilt, into a partnership in a doomed investment firm. But that was in a much different day.
Rutherford B. Hayes, a wealthy man, served as a director of a savings bank. Grover Cleveland helped to reorganize and resuscitate the Equitable Life Assurance Society. John Tyler, impoverished by the Civil War, dunned some of his old legal clients for bills long past due—including one for $3.56!
Tyler’s plight is only one demonstration of the fact that the American people, despite their obvious national pride in the Presidency, have not been notably openhanded to the men who have survived its burdens. Not until very recently did a pension bill for them get through Congress, despite the forceful arguments of its proponents that the President, though he is not supposed to demean his former office by taking jobs of low repute, was the only United States government officer not covered by retirement benefits. In the debate that preceded final passage, a Kentucky representative vented his spleen upon one of the two men to whom the bill was going to apply immediately, Harry Truman: “Let him continue his cheap demagogic politics at his own expense.”
Nevertheless, a bill finally passed, vigorously supported on the floor of the Senate by Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, among others. It was signed by President Eisenhower on August 25, 1958. Its provisions included a $25,000 annual pension (with a $10,000 pension for a President’s widow), free office space, $50,000 a year for clerical assistance, and the franking privilege.
The passage of the bill went almost unnoticed in the press, possibly because past Presidents are generally regarded as used-up institutions. Most of the time, the nation’s eye is on the incumbent or the heir apparent, and clearly, more than ever before, it focusses upon a President’s wealth at the time he takes office. In part this is because people are simply curious. In part, too, people are expressing suspicion of the man of power, inquiring in effect not about his judgment as an investor (which might indeed offer some evidence of his judgment in general) but about his possible self-serving as a speculator.
The sources and amount of a man’s wealth became a troublesome issue during the presidential campaign of 1952. The fire centered on the origins of certain funds in the control of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon. As a result of the ensuing imbroglio, Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President, boldly made known his fiscal assets. Since then, all the candidates for the two top offices have made some kind of financial report to the electorate.
But the public is not easily satisfied, an outgrowth of its endemic hostility to Wall Street and its growing sophistication in money matters. Inquiring citizens are constantly raising new questions. President-elect Kennedy, for example, announced early in January of 1961 that he had disposed of all his stocks and bonds within the preceding sixty days in order to avoid any “conflict of interest.” The money accruing had been reinvested in federal, state, and local bonds. A lawyer familiar with Kennedy’s financial status explained the nature of two irrevocable trusts of which Kennedy was the beneficiary: “His sole right under the trusts is to receive income and at stated times part of the principal. He has no voice in the management or investment policy and cannot appoint a trustee. Together with all other beneficiaries, he is prohibited from disposing in any wise of his beneficial interests.” Not many days later a letter to the editor of the New York Times from a professor of business administration pointed out that Kennedy could be favorably affected by government action on bond prices.
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.