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Thursday, June 26, 2014

George Washington, Jefferson, and FDR–Wealth, Leadership, And The One Percent

By all accounts George Washington was our wealthiest President, for his estate was valued at over $500 million in today’s dollars.
His Virginia plantation, "Mount Vernon," consisted of five separate farms on 8,000 acres of prime farmland, run by over 300 slaves. His wife, Martha Washington, inherited significant property from her father. Washington made significantly more than subsequent presidents: his salary was two percent of the total U.S. budget in 1789. (Wikimedia Commons)
1st :: George Washington (1789-1797)
The net worth of Thomas Jefferson was $212 million. 
Jefferson was left 3,000 acres and several dozen slaves by his father. "Monticello," his home on a 5,000 acre plantation in Virginia, was one of the architectural wonders of its time. He made significant money in various political positions before becoming president (Wikimedia Commons)
1st :: George Washington (1789-1797)

FDR was worth over $60 million, and JFK over $1 billion. These are considered among our greatest presidents, and their substantial wealth was never an issue in the electoral politics of their day.

Nor was their pedigree.  Washington and Jefferson were Virginia gentlemen, slave owners, and masters of large landholdings. Wealth and privilege was common among the Founding Fathers, but did not seem to bias them, cloud their judgment, or lead to elitist decisions concerning the new Republic. On the contrary, these men understood the power and position their wealth afforded them, but intellectually and morally they were committed to a political and philosophical vision.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of one of America’s most prestigious families.  He was Old Money to the marrow of his bones, a patrician in every way, born to privilege and great wealth, but like his early political predecessors was more concerned with the welfare of the State than his own estate.  Wealth and privilege did not get in his way when he passed the most liberal legislation the country has ever known – the New Deal – and he fought for the rights and benefits of the poor up to his death.

                   FDR Home in Hyde Park

LBJ was worth nearly $100 million and his Great Society was as influential as the redistributive programs of Roosevelt. George H.W.Bush was from the same patrician stock as Roosevelt and earlier Presidents, but characteristic of his generation and his heritage, public service was part of America’s bargain of wealth; and Bush fought in WWII, served in high government service before becoming Vice President and then President.

There have been plenty of Presidents of modest or even insignificant wealth, and some of them made good leaders.  The point is not that there is any correlation between wealth, commitment, and performance in office; only that great wealth does not and should not disqualify anyone.

Much was made about the wealth of the Clintons, and that because of it they are somehow out of touch with the masses.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Bill Clinton was as compassionate and caring about the poor as LBJ or FDR, and did more than any recent President in at least beginning a real accommodation between blacks and whites.  The problem is not so much with their net worth, but with their smarmy attempts to pretend that they are just folks.

George H.W.Bush was ridiculed because he didn’t know how to check out food at a supermarket.  His wealth and privilege had insulated from the needs, routines, and concerns of the common people; but there was nothing in his Presidential appointment letter that said he had to be of the people. Anyone with a Yale degree, officer training, military experience, and long years of government service can read and understand data on poverty, employment, income, social mobility, housing, and health care and learn about the plight of the poor without going to live in a South Carolina trailer.

As much as has been made by progressive activists about the One Percent, most people want the same privilege, wealth, and status as those who live on Park Avenue, summer on Nantucket, and have second and third homes in Carmel and St. Bart’s.  Money not only means leisure and guaranteed well-being, it means power and influence.  Who wouldn’t want it?

                                                           Nantucket Island Summer Estate

In most cases in today’s egalitarian America wealth is achieved through enterprise, ingenuity, and most importantly intelligence.  Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs did not cruise into great wealth thanks to inherited fortunes, but made it.  Now they are giving it away.  These mega-entrepreneurs and financiers are turning super-philanthropists.  Bill Gates alone has reshaped foreign aid thanks to the influence of his Foundation.

There is no shame in being poor, but there sure is no special honor to it either.  America is all about money, fame, and success.  Some of the most successful – like Gates, FDR, and George Washington – were unaffected by their wealth.  No one has accused any of them of using it for nefarious ends.

The Kennedy fortune has been questioned. Old Joe was a slick bootlegger, profiteer, and Nazi sympathizer; but the Kennedy sons fought the good fight.  Right or wrong, naïve or innocent, JFK had the country’s interests in mind when applying his vigorous foreign policy.  Bobby was a tireless pursuer of the Mob.  Teddy was a permanent Progressive who never wavered from his commitment to the poor.

Presidents who have not come from the privileged elite are always suspect. All but amateur psychologists parsing his hillbilly youth in Arkansas for clues to his ambition conclude that Bill Clinton was an honest man.

                                                       Gennifer Flowers

The fact is that Bill Clinton was smart, politically savvy, socially aware and particularly attentive, ambitious, and enterprising.  He is as American in spirit as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and earned his money the hard (right) way.  All three are entitled to their wealth, power, and prestige; and the country is better off for them.

In other words, noblesse oblige is not a bad thing at all, and great inherited wealth provided the financial security to FDR, Bush, Kennedy, Washington, and Jefferson that kept them unsullied and on course.  Although bourgeois wealth will always be looked at askance - How did that hillbilly Clinton ever get out of the mountains? – it too can be a proxy for the intelligence, savvy, and know-how necessary for political success.

If one looks at the net worth of Senators and Representatives, there is – not surprisingly – no direct correlation between political views and wealth.  For sure, Republicans are wealthier on the whole than Democrats.  Republicans are more likely to come from business and finance while Democrats from less remunerative positions in academia, public service, or the professions; but Elizabeth Warren, darling of the ‘progressive’ Left is worth almost $15 million.

There is nothing wrong with wealth per se which is why the whole One Percent campaign is nothing but posturing.  The issues are only how wealth was obtained and when; and how it is used. Nelson and Jay Rockefeller, good liberal politicians, were too far removed from John D. and his Robber Baron cohorts to be tainted by the old man’s money. 

JFK used his father’s ill-gotten gains to run for President; but his inherited wealth did not get in the way of his politics.  No one ever suspected Kennedy of being in bed with Wall street.  Only in today’s revisionist PC politics does anyone think of divestment, apology, or reparations. Wealth is what defines America, and for those who don’t have it, complaining about it is sour grapes.

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