Fighting Words

Let Them Count Houses

Can’t we escape this tiresome demagoguery about candidates’ income and property?

See Slate’s complete  Republican National Convention coverage.

Sen. John McCain’s now-notorious answer to the question of how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, own was first repeated to me as if he had been deliberately joking. And I must say that I thought his reported response—that he’d have to ask his staff to check and “get to you” with a full count—was really quite funny. But then everybody began acting as if he’d just told all the poor and unemployed to eat cake, so I thought I ought to check the original. It was an audio recording, so one couldn’t see his face or decide whether he was deadpanning (which he’s been known to do). But even on the audio from Politico, it was fairly plain that McCain was either laughing off the question and/or taking it too seriously as a literal matter of how many condominium units were in his and Cindy’s property portfolio. The full reply runs: “I think—I’ll have my staff get to you. It’s condominiums where—I’ll have them get to you.” Big deal.

I count myself as something of an expert on what writer Joyce Cary once called “tumbrel remarks.” A tumbrel remark is an unguarded comment by an uncontrollably rich person, of such crass insensitivity that it makes the workers and peasants think of lampposts and guillotines. I can give you a few for flavor. The late queen mother, being driven in a Rolls-Royce through a stricken district of Manchester, England, said as she winced at the view, “I see no point at all in being poor.” The Duke of St. Albans once told an interviewer that an ancestor of his had lost about 50 million pounds in a foolish speculation in South African goldfields, adding after a pause, “That was a lot of money in those days.” The Duke of Devonshire, having been criticized in the London Times, announced in an annoyed and plaintive tone that he would no longer have the newspaper “in any of my houses.”

See what I mean? It’s easier for some reason to imagine this in the tones of the English upper class, though you do get examples of it in American accents as well. A Bostonian donor to my old college at Oxford was named Coolidge, and when I asked him if he was related to the president of the same name, he acted offended, and said: “Why, no. I believe he was one of the working Coolidges.” Barbara Bush, acting the gracious hostess to refugees from New Orleans after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, managed to say that since many of them were underprivileged, life in a Texas sports stadium was “working very well for them.” One sees what she was perhaps attempting to say.

But this is the time, which boringly occurs every four years, when every politician in the country tries to act as if he or she went barefoot to school. Thank heaven that this year neither of the nominees comes from a small town (though Bill Clinton in Denver managed a reprise of the Arkansas hamlet called “Hope” where he spent about a nanosecond of his life). The sleek Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., righteously told Politico that he had it on good authority that John McCain “wears $500 shoes, has six houses and comes from one of the richest families in his state.” One can so easily see him indignantly turning down a campaign donation from a family that, like Cindy McCain’s (not John McCain’s), has a large beer concession. And one can so easily see him attacking a Democratic nominee who has a very wealthy wife. Just recall how he went after Teresa Heinz Kerry. … In 2004, the fact that she and Sen. John Kerry had five homes was a big element in the GOP’s pseudosocialist propaganda.

Alas, the Republicans this year could do no better than to reply in kind, drawing attention to Sen. Barack Obama’s large income and big house (the latter acquired with the help of a rather dubious Chicago speculator). In other words, they accepted the logic of the Democratic attack and sought only to say, “You, too.” How childish this is, and how few people one hopes are taken in by it. And how insulting it is, and how condescending to those who truly do have to struggle.

Every four years, we suddenly discover that the only people worth noticing or mentioning in the United States are those who are ill, or unemployed, or uninsured, or underpaid, or homeless, or some combination of the above. Bill and Hillary Clinton went on about these unprotected and wretched millions on two successive nights last week, apparently never reflecting that some of them at least must have been alive and suffering under the two Clinton administrations. How can a thinking person sit still and listen to such piffle, let alone get up and wave their arms about when they hear it again and again?

I mention this mainly because Barack Obama has repeatedly advertised himself as a new type of candidate and as a stranger to the usual idiocy of the partisan cheap shot. Yet he and his chosen running mate have now made a series of demagogic references to the income and property, not just of their rival for the White House, but to that of his wife. Nice going. It didn’t even occur to them that John McCain might actually not know the full extent of his joint property and that this could conceivably have been for the decent reason that he didn’t care that much. I think I can tell the difference between a true tumbrel remark and a false one, and I hope the examples I have provided will help you all to do so, as well. Now good night, and God bless America.