A few weeks ago, I found myself involved in a watercooler conversation about Mitt Romney. Although no one taking part in the conversation was a "friend of Mitt," everyone had experienced one or two chance encounters with Romney. Based upon our shared experiences, we pondered the question of whether Romney's income and blue-blood heritage would inhibit his ability to empathize with the average person.
For much of the country, Romney's class and wealth constitute a clear impediment to his capacity to govern. In his recent book, "Coming Apart," Charles Murray suggests that concerns about the ability of the upper class to govern are justified. Murray writes, "As the new upper class consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgements about what's good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives."
Many, if not most, Americans would agree with Murray. Americans want a president with some sense of the common person. This explains the preoccupation with the type of car Romney drives, how many houses he owns and whether he spends his weekends watching NASCAR races.
Romney is not the only candidate to have his wealth and upbringing scrutinized. In his 1992 reelection campaign, George H. W. Bush expressed utter amazement at seeing a grocery store scanner for the first time. This incident was used by his opponents to portray Bush as hopelessly disconnected from the average person. John McCain suffered a minor setback in his 2008 bid to become president when he acknowledged that he didn't know how many houses he owned.
Yet, this fixation upon finding a candidate with middle-class consumption habits isn't consistent with historic assessments of presidential effectiveness. An examination of U.S. history reveals that many of the country's most beloved and respected presidents have also been among the wealthiest. George Washington was the richest president with a net worth of more than half a billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Thomas Jefferson was the second wealthiest president and Theodore Roosevelt was the third. This means that of the four presidents honored on Mount Rushmore three were the wealthiest presidents in U.S. history.
Others rounding out the list of the 10 wealthiest presidents are Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William Clinton, and John F. Kennedy. Hoover is the only one of these presidents widely considered to be an ineffective president. The majority of the wealthiest presidents regularly appear on lists of the best and most effective U.S. presidents.
Moreover, these men didn't make any attempt to hide their wealth. Jefferson constructed Monticello. FDR was often observed with a martini shaker, cigarette holder and other affectations of the rich. Kennedy spent many weekends at the family compound at Hyannis Port.
If prior generations of voters had elected the presidential candidate who most closely resembled the typical American of the day, the nation would never have elected Washington, Jefferson, Madison, or any of the presidents named above. History suggests that today's voters would be well served to look past a candidate's consumption habits and focus upon the candidate's knowledge of foreign affairs, monetary and fiscal policy, and environmental and immigration issues.
As an interesting footnote, Murray's book contains a quiz called the Bubble Quiz designed to determine how in touch, or out of touch, the quiz taker is with the typical American. If you are interested in taking the quiz, you can simply type Charles Murray's Bubble Quiz into a search engine, and you will find a version of the quiz online.
Whether you agree with my viewpoint or not, the quiz is fun to take.