The major party conventions have become prime time opportunities to create biographies – some would say mythologies – of the candidates, free of the media filter. Personal tragedy, adversity and humble origins are the currency in these staged productions. Personal wealth, if it exists, is ignored. It wasn’t always this way.
Abraham Lincoln wrote three autobiographies in the two years leading to his 1860 election as president. In 1859, in response to a request from a writer compiling information on Congress, he merely listed biographical facts: “Born, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. Education defective. Profession, a lawyer. Have been a captain of volunteers in Black Hawk war. Postmaster at a very small office. Four times a member of the Illinois legislature, and was a member of the lower house of Congress.”
A year later, Mr. Lincoln wrote more extensively, though no less humbly: “[O]ur new home [Indiana] … was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals, still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond ‘readin, writin, and cipherin’ … [W]hen I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.”
The third version was penned by a writer for Chicago’s Press and Tribune newspaper from information provided by Mr. Lincoln. The section covering his family’s move to Illinois includes some now-famous iconography: “His father and family [settled] … at the junction of the timberland and prairie… Here they built a log cabin … and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground … These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though these are far from being the first or only rails ever made by Abraham.”
This is a far cry from the mythology presidential candidates create in video and in speeches today, but it’s interesting to note that even in 1860 being a commoner carried political weight.
Democrats have been making hay with Sen. John McCain’s inability to tell a reporter how many homes he and his wife own. Sen. McCain also said, somewhat flippantly, that people become rich only when they pass the $5 million threshold. Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, is heiress to her father’s beer distributorship, and some estimates put her worth at $100 million.
Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama, who rose from poverty — his mother received food stamps for a time — has been criticized as elite and out of touch with blue collar voters. His dismissive remark about rural residents clinging to God and guns furthered this image.
It is a deeply held American belief that wealth — earned or inherited — is suspect. This election won’t upend that belief, but maybe it’s time to drop the argument that wealth cuts elected officials off from understanding real-life worries. Or that a humble background is a prerequisite for higher office.