TPM and other center-to-left blogs are having a wonderful time with the story that has spun out of John McCain’s inability to remember just how many houses he and his wife own. (Start here and read up from there.) It has become a humorous way to highlight both the Republican candidate’s age and just how super-wealthy he and his wife actually are, to a degree that will surprise many voters who only know McCain from his maverick-esque talk show appearances. The count appears to be up at least eight luxury homes, but many more if you count separate dwelling units, and many many more if you use the spaces that most middle-class American families live in as your units.
Miraculously, the mainstream media (AP and CNN and ABC) are joining the story some, showing just a touch of shame for the DC press corps’ slavering promotion of McCain over the years. We can also hope that even some of the TV-star media types who have lavish lifestyle issues themselves may want to show their common touch by expressing some shock at the McCains’ wealth or even feel a twinge of jealousy that even they, nightly guests in every American living room, are not quite this rich. (The New York Times, however, continues to search for false equivalences. To paraphrase Steely Dan, the things that pass for objectivity I can’t understand.) What Obama really needs is for the late night comedians to pick this up.
Here is Obama hitting the theme cautiously, but reasonably well:
On to historical context: There is, of course, a long tradition in American presidential politics of attacking an opponent’s lavish lifestyle, especially in times of economic hardship. It will be interesting to see how badly this hurts McCain. In the past, the tactic has been most successfully used against incumbent presidents, often by opponents who were wealthier or represented wealthier interests than the candidate who was being attacked. So the forces supporting rich planter, slave dealer, and land speculator Andrew Jackson raked John Quincy Adams over his billiard table.
The most successful example from the Early Republic was the well-funded 1840 Whig campaign defining tavern-keeper’s son Martin Van Buren as a pampered aristocrat, while the country suffered through the depression following the Panic of 1837. The key document was a massive speech-turned-pamphlet about the furnishings and operating expenses of the White House, published under the title “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” Here is a little explanation from Common-Place‘s sturdy old precursor, American Heritage:
THE TIME MACHINE
1840 One Hundred and Fifty Sixty-Eight Years Ago
. . . On April 14 the Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy “strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE,” in a “PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.” Van Buren was too vain to eat “those old and unfashionable dishes, ‘hog and hominy,’ ‘fried meat and gravy,’ … [and] a mug of ‘hard cider,’ ” Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and “Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,” into which the President dipped his “pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.”
The only response from the White House was a simple certification that “no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.” Ogle published his “gold spoon oration” at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the “hard-cider man” and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.
The American Heritage site also has an excerpt from Ogle’s speech, in fact more of a mini-edition of it. I am getting together a pdf of the whole thing, or perhaps we can convince the AAS to do that. Compare Ogle’s lovingly detailed descriptions of “the magnificent decorations of the Presidential palace”and its grounds matching “the style and fashion of some of the most celebrated royal gardens In England” to TPM’s post “Lifestyles of the Rich and Mavericky,” which includes a realtor’s listing of the McCains’ quite regal Phoenix mansion describing its “Finest entertaining backyard in the Valley – 3 ramadas (2 w/full bar set-up), BBQ, play house, cantera stone decking, pavillion, spa, and large lap/play pool.” Another parallel is that Ogle got the information he did not make up from a proud description of the White House from the pro-Van Buren Washington Globe and an administration appropriations request. Among the sources for McCain’s detractors are a spread in Architectural Digest about one of his pads and adoring video tours of the others from Fox News and McCain’s own campaign website.
McCain’s attacks on Obama as a celebrity, including an ad that jibed “Life in the Spotlight Must Be Grand,” would be more typical of the inversionist faux-populism that has worked in past campaigns. But it’s now looking (tentatively) like it may have backfired. People who live in eight glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I guess.
This appears to be my 100th post on this blog, so I’m glad it was accidentally a double-size special issue.