Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rich Presidential Candidates

David Frum asks "When Did Our Presidents Get So Rich?"

Great question, and even better applied, as he does in the post, to presidential candidates:

It seems that the income gap is widening between presidential candidates and the average voter. Barack Obama in 2008 was not a person from a wealthy background, but compared to the typical voter, he was still much wealthier than say, Harry Truman was in 1948.
It would be interesting to see a chart of the relative differential between the combined incomes of the two candidates in any given year and the income of the typical voter in that year. I don't have the answer at hand, but I'd guess off the top of my head that the "narrowest years" out of the past century would be 1924, 1948, 1968, 1972, and 1976; the "widest" 1928, 1960, 1964, 2004, and 2008. But I may be wrong! Has anybody out there ever in Internet land ever considered this data point?
I'm not aware of any research into this, but one of the things it reminds me of is the story of Richard Nixon in the 1960s. Here's how Garry Wills put it.
Thursday Niight, Nixon came to Convention Hall -- its interior seen through dazzles, veils woven by the rows on rows of lights. He was proud of his acceptance speech. It would (carefully) reveal his inner self. He came to make the only moral claim that mattered to his audience. To tell them he had made it. "You can see why I believe so deeply in the American dream." He had risen, politically, from the dead. And he had done it by the route these men respected -- by making money. Nixon had been a candidate before, and politician always; but only after his 1962 defeat did he become a wealthy man. The Checkers speech was truthful, back in 1952 -- he was poor; he was young, starting out, working hard to succeed. But then there had been failure, political defeat. And through it all he had not earned the money to be independent. Only when he became a Wall Street lawyer, with $200,000 a year from his practice, and with Bebe Rebozo to help him invest in Florida land, could he look his fellow Republicans straight in the eye at last. A campaign coordinator who worked with Nixon through the years put it this way: "Dick could not have made it to first base in 1968 without a substantial personal income. Republicans, especially those who finance the party, respect only one thing, success, and they have only one way of measuring success, money. Dick never had any money before now. He could not talk to these people as an equal, even when he was Vice-President. The thing that woul dhave kiled him with them was any suspicion that he simply needed a job. Now they knew he'd be giving up a damn good job, and good money" (282-283, emphasis his).
I strongly suspect that Wills gets this right. Does it still apply? The recent Republican nominees who started life with little, such as Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan, certainly had made plenty of money by the time they won the nomination (Bill Clinton, on the Democratic side, too, although in that case it was his wife who was making the money, for however that works out).

Anyway, I know there's some data about Congress, but I'm not aware of what anyone has compiled about presidential candidates. Has anyone collected these data?


  1. 2004 is probably the widest. Both candidates had gobs and gobs of money. 1940 was probably pretty wide too, since Willkie did very well as a Wall Street lawyer, and most people were still suffering from the Depression.

    1996 was probably pretty narrow. I suspect Hillary Clinton, a partner at a law firm but in Little Rock, didn't make a huge amount of dough, and of course she'd been out of work for four years by that time. The Clintons didn't own a house when Bill was elected president.

  2. To be a serious Presidential candidate, you have to have been in politics for years - so of course you're going to be rich. Nixon was a brilliant man, but he wasn't raking it in purely on his legal brain - it was because of the access and connections he had built up during his years in politics, which he was then able to cash in in the private sector.

    For all that some people seem concerned that money can buy you political success, the arrow of causation runs in the opposite direction, and this situation is far more damaging. It's just another manifestation of the damaging effects of excessive government discretion.

  3. Several sources have argued that George Washington is actually the richest president we've ever had. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampbarrett/2012/01/24/how-romney-would-rank-among-the-richest-u-s-presidents/ or http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-01-28/romney-richest-presidents/52838148/1) The Gary Wills story rings true, but that's more a commentary on the GOP -- starting around Harding, I'd guess -- than about presidents or the country.

  4. This reminds me of something I've always wanted to know, but have never been able to find out from any (published) wrk that I've seen...and it's never fit into my professional research agenda.

    How did Lenin and Trotsky and all the other Russion radicals in exile make a living back in the early 20th century? (I know a fair amount of it was almost certainly "journalism," but not of a sort that could have paid very well. Yet the biographies of Lenin, in particular, suggest a fairly comfortable life-style.)

  5. yes, this sounds about right.

    Large part of the disdain for Kerry was he married for money, and for Obama for not having a real job (he did make a lot of money off the book)

    The Clinton's enriching themselves (future contracts, whitewater, the Clinton Foundation) should make everyone sick.

    1. Sorry, cut myself off:

      My favorite story about that is how Lockheed got reagan very rich before becoming governor.

      Ironically, the one president in recent times who really earned his money was Carter. As a businessman and farmer. You have to give GW Bush some credit as well -- zapata was really his company, although here was a lot of help along the way.

    2. Someday you'll have to tell us the story of how the Clintons enriched themselves via Whitewater.

  6. I would love to see some good political science devoted to this topic. Very interesting, thanks for bringing it to light.

  7. According to 24/7 Wall st. President Obama has the least amount of net worth since President Harry Truman. I would like to see a study comparison of the poorest Presidents vs. the richest. Considering the current economic climate today. It might be better to have a rich president who knows how to earn money rather than one who doesn't and instead excels at spending money. Here is the link to all the Presidents net worth. http://247wallst.com/2010/05/17/the-net-worth-of-the-american-presidents-washington-to-obama/


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