‘Shaquille O’Neal,” quips comedian Chris Rock, “is rich. The man who signs Shaq’s check — he’s wealthy.”
At the risk of being a martyr, I would quite humbly offer to be either. Not so Hillary Clinton, though, who seems to be suffering the acute cognitive dissonance of being most definitely rich, and most definitely not wealthy.
For perspective, at the bottom of Forbes’s list of the 400 richest Americans are Roger Penske (of the Penske Corporation transportation company) and Bruce Nordstrom (of the high-end retailer), net worth: $1.3 billion each. If you don’t have a billion-plus, you don’t even make the list. Hillary Clinton’s net worth is 1/26th of that — a piddling $50 million. Bill adds an additional $80 million, but even with that the couple is hopelessly middle-class compared with Forbes’s bottom-dwellers. The Clintons are rich. They ain’t wealthy.
Of course, crunching the numbers shows just how absurd the distinction is — particularly when you consider that the median American household boasts a net worth of about $70,000. The difference between “rich” and “wealthy” is a(nother) yacht; between either of them and a household running on two public-school teachers’ salaries is a chasm.
None of this is to vilify the rich (or the wealthy). But despite Hillary’s recent protestations, the average American knows the definition of “dead broke” — and it doesn’t involve mortgages on “houses” (note the plural).
There is a time-honored ritual in American electoral politics of demanding that candidates whose wealth is unfathomable to 99 percent of their voters claim that they are just Average Jack and Jill. Mitt Romney (also rich but certainly not wealthy: net worth somewhere north of $200 million) attempted to do something of the sort in 2012. Already less than dexterous at handling conversations about his significant wealth, he had awkward moments attempting to straddle the line between Rich and Regular (for example, the governor said he does not follow the Sprint Cup, “but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners”). The Left pounced on every opportunity to declare Romney “out of touch.”
But if gobs of money means “out of touch,” then “out of touch” is the natural province of national politicians. And both voters and politicians know it. Yet every four years the American electorate demands that fabulously wealthy politicians eschew their wealth and roll around in the County Fair dust to prove that they live “just like us.” But they don’t: Hillary Clinton does not drive a used Kia, buy off-brand groceries (or her own groceries, for that matter), or live in a third-floor walkup above a cash-for-gold service. Fine. Everyone knows that. So why force her to pretend otherwise? It’s one thing to have her accompany a single mother to the store to get a sense of what life is like in the neighborhood; it’s an entirely different one for her to pretend, as has seemingly been the aim of much of her book tour (“hard choices” and all of that), that she and the struggling single mother at the corner store are one and the same.
Maybe it’s a vestige of America’s by-the-bootstraps vision of prosperity, or our romantic affection for the short and simple annals of the poor, or our quasi-French equality fetish. Regardless, each election cycle we insist on a bizarre spectacle in which candidates pretend they are not wealthy, voters nod approvingly at their downhome ways, and both actors and audience privately acknowledge that it’s all theater. It’s mise-en-scène as national pastime. It must say something alarming about a body of voters that, before considering a candidate’s policies or merits, they require, first, an act of prostration.
How about, in 2016, a new strategy? What if wealthy candidates, rather than feigning solidarity with the “average American,” acknowledge their wealth without apology — and move on? No empty sympathy with the Common Man’s plight, no vote-bait playacting, no insults to voters’ intelligence.
Of course politicians are different. If they were “average Americans,” they would not be running for office. That disconnect between voter and politician is obvious, and we fool only ourselves by fantasizing it away. It’s not the candidates’ wealth, as such, that is important (though, of course, the way they earned it might be); it’s their platform and their character. In fact, honest self-appraisal would encourage some much-needed confidence in the latter.
So, fine, Mrs. Clinton, you’re rich. Own it.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.