It’s as predictable as vultures at a carcass — when a wealthy Republican is running for office, the press will make his wealth a handicap. Recall that when George H. W. Bush was running in 1988, he was derided as “preppy.” George W. Bush was the undeserving scion of the ruling class, we were told, never mind that he had succeeded in business on his own. Though John McCain had been a fixture on the national stage since 1980, no one had paid much attention to his wealth until he was the Republican nominee, at which point his many houses suddenly became a matter of profound national importance.
Democrats, of course, are permitted to be rich without fear of undue scrutiny. John F. Kennedy was wealthier than Mitt Romney, or he would have been had he lived to collect his inheritance. Lyndon B. Johnson was born poor and died very rich. He didn’t earn his money in the private sector. He used political influence to first purchase and then maintain monopolistic radio licenses in his wife’s name.
There wasn’t much fuss about John Kerry’s great wealth in 2004. Kerry didn’t earn his fortune either, but secured it through two advantageous marriages. Teresa Heinz Kerry is rumored to be in the billionaires’ club. Good for her, though she didn’t earn it either, but married the heir of the ketchup fortune. John Kerry was an advocate of raising taxes on the rich, but he, like Warren Buffett, declined to contribute more than required to Uncle Sam. In fact, he was caught mooring his yacht in Rhode Island so as to avoid Massachusetts taxes. Oh, and before he married Teresa Heinz, there were a number of years in which Senator Kerry donated nothing at all to charity.
Now it’s Romney’s turn, thanks not just to the press but to Newt Gingrich, who gleefully mouths every left-wing jibe that proves handy. In Florida, he disparaged Romney as a Swiss-bank-account-holding “automatic $20 million a year” guy. Gingrich, who earned his own not-inconsiderable fortune (Tiffany’s account, anyone?) by selling influence, is joined in his dismay at Romney’s larger fortune by other exceedingly wealthy men. NBC’s Brian Williams (annual salary: $13 million) shared the news about Romney’s tax returns this way: “He did it to help stop the questions about his wealth, but in releasing his taxes, he reveals what most Americans will regard as unimaginable wealth.”
Oh “unimaginable wealth” — how shocking. The amount that Brian Williams contributes to charity is not public knowledge. But Newt Gingrich’s contributions are available. Though his adjusted gross income was $3.1 million in 2010 (is that “imaginable wealth”?), Gingrich donated only $81,133 to charity, or 2.6 percent of his income — below the average rate for his income group.
Gingrich and liberals seem to think that paying taxes is “patriotism” — to quote Joe Biden, who gave a grand total of $368 annually to charity in the decade before 2008. By their own standard, their patriotism is a little rusty. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was only the most prominent, but far from the only Obama appointee to acknowledge that he hadn’t paid the taxes he owed. And the IRS recently announced that 36 members of President Obama’s executive-office staff owe the government $833,970 in back taxes.
Conservatives think people should obey the law, and that includes paying taxes. But we don’t worship the state or its “greedy hand” (see Amity Shlaes).
Far from having reason to be embarrassed about his wealth, Romney has every reason to be “unimaginably” proud. He didn’t inherit his money (he gave away his inheritance), and he didn’t earn it by parlaying his government post into contracts for services as a “historian.” He earned every penny through his own talents in the private sector. He then paid all the taxes he was required to pay.
Beyond that, Mr. Romney’s tax returns reveal the most generous charitable donor to run for president in recent history. The Romneys donated about 14 percent of their income to charity in 2010 and about 19 percent in 2011. The average donation for people at the Romneys’ level of income is 6 percent.
Would Romney’s money have done more good if he’d forked those extra millions to the IRS rather than to the Mormon Church and the other charities they selected? Well, that would certainly have provided a few more bucks for Solyndra and the urgently necessary high-speed rail from Fresno to Bakersfield. But, on balance, private charities are probably a better bet for improving the world.
You’d think Gingrich would understand that.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2012 Creators Syndicate, Inc.