John F. Kennedy was an heir to a fortune worth hundreds of millions, yet his portrait adorned the living room walls of some of the nation’s poorest families. Nelson Rockefeller was the grandson of America’s richest oil magnate, but he won backslaps and hugs when, as governor, he showed up at New York’s ethnic eateries.
George H.W. Bush, in contrast, came from a fortune nowhere near as large, yet when Texas Gov. Ann Richards described the 1988 Republican presidential nominee as having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” the image stuck.
Mitt Romney, who grew up wealthy as the son of the chief executive of American Motors and who made his own fortune in the private-equity business, saw his Republican presidential campaign poll numbers tumble after former House speaker Newt Gingrich began portraying him as a detached millionaire who made his fortune by cutting jobs as much as by creating them.
Will that picture of the former Massachusetts governor stick? Why do Americans admire some wealthy politicians, but resent others?
POLL: Do you admire these wealthy Americans?
One simple answer is that Americans love a self-made man and tend to be suspicious of those born with money. But for a people of a nation founded in rebellion against rule by men with inherited wealth, Americans have happily supported many politicians — Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes — who grew up rich.
As Romney has discovered, some wealthy politicians win acceptance from people who are just scraping by, while others get tagged as hopelessly out of touch.
The most important tool wealthy politicians have relied on to win over the public is pure force of personality — and that often includes a gift for self-deprecating humor.
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both came from big money, yet the presidents’ larger-than-life affability and celebrity won them admiration across class lines. Kennedy came to elective politics with a dramatic backstory as a war hero that canceled out most suspicions that he might be a rich dandy.
Romney, however, despite several attempts to reshape his message, remains awkward in his discussions about money. When he handed $50 to an unemployed South Carolina woman who told him her hard-luck story, referred to his $370,000 in income from speaking fees as “not very much,” or challenged opponent Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, Romney unintentionally enriched the narrative that Gingrich is peddling, in which Romney lives in a world “of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million a year income with no work.”
The popular image of Romney’s wealth is muddled because he both grew up rich and made his own fortune. One reason former pizza magnate Herman Cain rocketed to the top of the charts earlier in this primary season is that he evidently pulled himself up by his own bootstraps — the classic American success story. The same goes for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started out as a parking-lot attendant and is now listed by Forbes as the nation’s 12th-richest person.
“If Romney is seen as contributing to economic growth, that kind of wealth is very much admired,” says Leslie McCall, a Northwestern University sociologist who is completing a study on American attitudes toward income inequality. “But if it’s obtained through means that aren’t sensitive to the middle class and the poor, that’s another story.”
Even if Romney successfully portrayed himself as a job creator, he may also be victim of a fact that is beyond his control: It turns out that timing is an important factor in determining whether wealthy candidates succeed. McCall’s research suggests that Americans’ attitudes toward the rich wax and wane, with resentment against the wealthy surging especially when the rich are doing well at a time when the average family is struggling.
Romney’s friends and aides say his life’s work disproves the cartoon image of the rich kid who grew up without much exposure to middle-class America. They say his work at Bain Capital helped businesses that employ thousands of people. And they say he was raised with a keen sense of the value of a dollar — just last week, Romney and his wife, Ann, sent an aide to pick up their breakfast at McDonald’s rather than shell out for an expensive hotel meal.
Nonetheless, Romney has repeatedly stubbed his toe against the boundary of Americans’ tolerance of the very rich. The fuzzy nature of that border is apparent in the ongoing debate within the Republican Party, which has long trumpeted the idea that individual success is the breeding ground for broader well-being.
Primary voters are now being asked to figure out whether it was merely gauche when Romney boasted that he was “happy that [Ted Kennedy] had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me” in a Massachusetts Senate race or if Romney was exposing himself as a vulture capitalist.
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