Saturday, April 19, 2008



Some news pundits are dumping on Barack Obama for recent comments he has made about working-class people in small towns being “bitter.” Senator Obama, in common with Senators Clinton and McCain and, in fact, all the other ninety-seven senators, is a rich man. Does being rich and having a Harvard law degree disqualify him from being President? Mr. Obama was not born rich. He was raised by a single mother in straightened circumstances. By hard work, skill, intelligence, and good luck he was able to earn a law degree at Harvard University and go on to a successful career in Illnions politics and eventually become a United States Senator. In the process he has also amassed a personal fortune. That is to say, he is now a lot richer than I am.

Compared with Senators Clinton and McCain, it seems to me that Obama should have the best appreciation from his own life experience of what the “bitter” working-class folks in small towns are experiencing. He lived in poverty as a child. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. McCain can make that claim. Actually, they can, but no one will believe them.

Does a childhood of poverty or near poverty qualify one to be President? Presidents Lincoln, Truman, and Nixon come to mind. Lincoln and Truman are rightly revered. Nixon is scorned for his crimes, but he was in other respects a better than average President. He managed to extricate us from Viet Nam and he created an opening to the new Mao regime in China. He tried to establish a system of universal health care. On the other hand, he spawned a school of thought, championed by Vice-President Cheney, that the President is and ought to be free of legal restraints imposed by the Congress and the Constitution.

The charge of elitist applied to Obama implies that he is not electable, not that he wouldn’t be a good President. Candidates who appear to be “elite” turn off the ordinary working-class voter, or so it is said. I don’t think that charge can be proved true by history. My recollection of Presidents and Presidential candidates goes back as far as Herbert Hoover. I recall candidates Hoover (1932), Roosevelt, Landon (1936), Willkie (1940), Dewey (1944 and 1948), Truman (1948), Stevenson (1952 and 1956), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon (1960 and 1968), Johnson, Goldwater (1964), Humphrey (1968), McGovern (1972), Ford, Carter, Reagan, Mondale (1984), Bush I, Dukakis (1988), Clinton, Dole (1996), Gore, Bush II, and Kerry. I’m not sure of which ones should be called “elitist” because I’m not sure what the word means. However, I’ll assume that it means that the person is, either in fact or by repute, a member of the “well-born and able” class rather than an ordinary person like you or me. By this definition I would classify Roosevelt, Willkie, Dewey, Stevenson, Kennedy, both Bushes, Gore, and Kerry as members of the “elite.” Out of the nine, four of these were elected to the Presidency. Eisenhower and Truman defeated “elite” candidates Dewey and Stevenson. Non-elite candidate Clinton defeated elite candidate Bush I. Bush II defeated Gore and Kerry. All three men belonged to the “elite” or “well-born and able” class. One can argue that Bush II has taken great pains to try to distance himself from the “elite” class into which he was born by adopting the speech mannerisms of poorly educated residents of western Texas. The fact remains that if he were not a member of the “elite” Bush family he would have gotten nowhere in politics.

So, there we have it. We’ve had Presidents who experienced poverty or near-poverty in childhood, Presidents of “ordinary” parents, and Presidents who were born rich. The best one in my lifetime was Roosevelt and the worst was the present Bush. Both men were born into wealthy households and had good educations. By my definition they were members of the elite. Presidents Truman, Ford, Nixon, and Clinton could all make the claim that they grew up in either poor or lower middle class households. They were “average Americans” and better than “average” Presidents. There seems to be no correlation between a President who is “just like the rest of us poor slobs” and the achievements and benefits of his term of office. Also, there seems to be no correlation between “electability” and membership or non-membership in the “elite” class.

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