Plantations and log cabins

Mitt Romney is a very rich man. According to financial forms released this week and reported in major newspapers, the former Massachusetts governor earned between $17 million and $69 million last year from a list of investments that covered 47 pages. His immediate family owns trusts worth as much as $350 million.

The question is whether this staggering wealth helps or hurts Romney’s pursuit of the presidency. The answer is both, and that’s because Americans feel profoundly ambivalent on the subject of money when it comes to picking their leaders.

Voters admire candidates who have made a bundle in business, who have met a payroll and mastered the economy. Besides, most Americans want to be rich themselves someday. But they also fear that great affluence shields people like Romney from understanding the problems of average Americans. Can a man with 47 pages of investments really know what it’s like to worry about losing a job or paying medical bills?

The wealth question reaches beyond the practical into the realm of theology and myth. A core belief of early New England settlers was the Protestant Ethic: the idea that thrift and hard work were prime earthly virtues; and even better, that material success was a sign of God’s grace and eternal salvation.

Equally American is the idea that poverty is an ennobling experience, that suffering breeds virtue and builds character. And both sides of this story were on display at the recent Iowa straw poll for Republican hopefuls.

Romney finished first with about 32 percent and never denied that his 4,516 votes had cost about $800 a piece. Instead he told Fox News that his financial acumen meant he “understood business” and would enable him to recruit “a lot from the private sector” for his administration.

By contrast, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished second with 18 percent, boasted about his penury. He spent only $150,000 to attract 2,587 supporters, or about $58 per vote. “I can’t pay for you,” he gleefully told followers, “I can’t even rent you!”

There’s no doubt that Romney’s money pays real dividends. In the first six months of 2007 he lent his campaign almost $9 million, covering a huge shortfall between income and payouts. His expenditures included $5 million for TV ads in early primary states like Iowa, and “super volunteers” who earned up to $1,000 a month organizing coffees and phone banks. No rival came close to matching that budget.

Being rich also means you have rich friends. At Romney’s old firm, Bain Capital Partners, 109 employees contributed a total of $196,000 to his war chest. Romney’s assets are probably helpful in another way: If he’s rolling in dough, some voters might figure, he won’t steal from us.

But a lot of rich folks have run for president and lost -- think John Kerry or Steve Forbes. While financial success might mean salvation, it also brings scrutiny. George Bush was constantly accused of profiting from his father’s connections and the collapse of Enron tainted his ties to Texas tycoons like Ken Lay. Bill Clinton, who promoted his humble origins in Hope, Ark., ran into tough questions about his involvement in the Whitewater land development company.

Romney put all his investments in a blind trust in 2003 and his trustee has sold off some questionable stocks. Even so, a sharp-eyed reporter at the Los Angeles Times noticed that Romney’s portfolio still includes shares in a Chinese oil company that does business in Sudan, “where the government is accused of sponsoring genocide.”

Rich candidates who run successfully for president understand the importance of symbolism. The Kennedys inherited a vast fortune, but their touch football games and sailing races conveyed a sense of youth and vitality more than privilege. When Kerry went windsurfing, however, he came across as elitist, not athletic. John Edwards is having trouble reconciling his huge mansion with his concern for the poor.

Franklin Roosevelt effectively erased the blemish of bounty by arguing that his family background gave him a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate. In a college essay quoted by historian Jonathan Zimmerman, FDR wrote of his relatives: “They have felt ... that being in a good position, there is no excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community.”

Wealth and poverty are both part of the American story. George Washington’s plantation and Abe Lincoln’s log cabin are both symbols of what we look for in a president. Those tensions will play out in the months ahead as voters take the measure of Mitt Romney.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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