January 15, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
When New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has a point to make, he doesn’t let facts get in his way. Today Bruni’s point is that “Republican or Democrat, they always have money if they end up in the White House.” Since this is not true, Bruni resorts to letting someone else establish his premise. The someone else who articulated Bruni’s thesis was Wendy White, a schoolteacher Bruni met at a Mitt Romney rally. (If you think about it for upwards of a nanosecond, it will dawn on you that a woman attending a Romney rally might be inclined to downplay Romney’s super-richy-richness. Bruni hopes you won’t have a nanosecond to spare.) Speaking for himself, Bruni adds, “And Republican or Democrat, they often go to laughable lengths to play that down.” This is not true, either, but once Ms. White has taken the fall for Bruni’s major premise, perhaps he hopes you won’t notice he has fibbed in his own words, too.
Of the top five GOP presidential contenders, only Romney is really rich. His net worth is between $190 and $250 million, according to 24/7 Wall St., via NBC News. (Jon Huntsman is super-rich, too, but Huntsman is not going to be president any more than Michele Bachmann was going to be president. Oh, and Bachmann isn’t rich.) Newt Gingrich, NBC says, is worth at least $6.7 million, which makes him rich. He would be richer if he hadn’t spent about a tenth of his net worth on Tiffany baubles for his wife. Ron Paul has a net worth of as much as $5 million. That’s a tidy sum. If he and the Mrs. want to take a cruise, they can afford it.
But the other two plausible GOP presidential candidates, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, are not well-to-do. Perry is worth at least $1.1 million, which for a family man his age (61) is a pretty modest net worth. When Perry leaves office, no doubt he will make plenty of money, thanks to PLUS – our fabulous Political Losers Unemployment System – or what Paul Krugman calls “wingnut welfare.” That is, Perry will become a lobbyist, join a speakers’ bureau – or take a job at a right-wing think tank, where I’m sure he will tank many thoughts. It’s the route both Gingrich and Santorum took when they were drummed out of office. But if Perry were in some other line of work and that million dollars he holds were his whole nest egg, Perry and his wife would have to live rather frugally upon retirement – especially if Congress abandoned that “Ponzi scheme” otherwise known as Social Security.
Rick Santorum has a net worth of between $880,000 and $1.9 million. Santorum and his wife have seven children. The NBC report says, “According to Pittsburgh-based site Early Returns, ‘most of Santorum’s assets are tied up in rental properties he owns around the Penn State campus and college savings plans for five of his children.’” News flash, Mr. Bruni: Rick Santorum is not rich. In fact, he’s cash-strapped. A huge chunk of his assets is already “spent”: it is earmarked for educating his children. There’s a reason he buys sweater vests from Joseph A. Banks. He can’t afford sleeves.
As I outlined in an earlier column, Frank Bruni is enamored of the “both sides do it” school of journalism. He will claim both sides do bad stuff even when he presents evidence only that one side – the Republicans – do bad stuff. So it is hardly surprising that in today’s column, Bruni decides that President Obama also was rich when he began running for president. As his evidence, Bruni cites the Obamas’ 2006 tax returns and their estimated assets in late 2007, which were as much as $7.5 million. Pretty impressive. It’s a good thing Bruni didn’t go back to 2004 when the Obamas’ total worth was between $200,000 and $400,000, and their net income was less than $113,000. What happened there? Mostly, the 2004 Democratic convention happened. As Marlys Harris of CNN Money reported in 2007,
The big boost came from his writing, following the stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that made him famous. First came a memoir, ‘Dreams of My Father,’ and later ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 30 weeks.” Up until the books began to sell, the Obamas were a typical struggling couple, albeit a typical struggling couple of Harvard Law grads. “It was largely the revenue derived from Barack’s pair of best-selling books that finally allowed them to retire their student loan debts.
It is ridiculous for Bruni to compare someone who was born to wealth (Romney’s father George was CEO of American Motors) and who has been making millions for two decades to a candidate with lower-middle-class roots who was still paying off his college loans three years before he ran for president. Maybe that schoolteacher Bruni met at the Romney event thinks all presidential candidates are rich, but Bruni should know better. The schoolteacher was guessing. Bruni has the data.
Bruni wasn’t satisfied with calling this year’s candidates rich. He went all the way back to George Washington. Yep, Washington was rich. He married up. Bruni dwells on John Kerry – who is even richer than Romney (Kerry married up, too) – after which Bruni runs through “Rich U.S. Presidents.” He writes, “Almost all 20th-century presidents were much richer than the average American.” When he gets to 2008, he notes that candidate Hillary Clinton was so rich she lent her campaign $11 million. Funny, Bruni doesn’t mention Clinton’s husband, who was a presidential nominee twice. Bill Clinton entered the White House poor, and he left deeply in debt. Since 1980, all of the Republican nominees for president were well-to-do. Even long-time Senator Bob Dole, who grew up poor and spent his life in public service, was wealthy. His wife Elizabeth’s 2005 financial disclosure form shows the couplewas worth as much as $50 million at that time. Democratic nominees, with the exception of Kerry and Al Gore, were middle-class. Gore’s net worth in 2000, by the way, was only about a tenth of his opponent George W. Bush’s at the time. In short, Bruni’s – or Wendy White’s – “both-sides” generalization is fact-challenged.
Now let’s look at Bruni’s assertion that “Republican or Democrat, they often go to laughable lengths to play down [their wealth].” Really? Bruni cites a number of Romney’s awkward – and unsuccessful – attempts to pretend to empathize with the financial woes of the common man. Bruni mentions George W. Bush’s “folksy persona” and his down-home brush-clearing vacations. That’s it. Two Republicans. Yet in Bruni-speak that counts for “both sides do it” – Republican and Democrat. He names no Democrats who “go to laughable lengths” to hide their wealth. He can’t. First, recent Democratic presidents – Carter, Clinton and Obama – had little wealth to hide. The richest of the three, President Obama, has not attempted to “play down” his wealth. In fact, the opposite is true. Obama has repeatedly argued during speeches that people like him who “have done well” should pay higher taxes: “All I’m saying is that those who have done well, including me, should pay our fair share in taxes to contribute to the nation that made our success possible. We shouldn’t get a better deal than ordinary families get.” (Rose Garden, September 19, 2011) And here’s Bill Clinton, who is – as Bruni implies – super-rich now: “My taxes were cut a lot in the last decade and my income went up a lot. I believe people like me should pay, not because it’s a bad thing to be successful, but because the country’s made us successful and we’re in the best position to help do something about the debt and invest in the future of the young people to give them a better future.” (November 8, 2011) Clinton, too, has made this observation more than once. Democratic presidents do not “play down” their wealth. Rather, they use their own wealth as exemplars of why it is necessary to somewhat level the playing field.
Last week New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane created an industry-wide guffaw when he asked in a post titled “Should The Times be a Truth Vigilante?” if readers thought “New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Brisbane suggested that maybe only an op-ed columnist had “the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie.” Evidently Frank Bruni does not cherish that “freedom.” Rather than boldly revealing the truth behind slippery political rhetoric, Bruni tells his very own lies. In what he apparently takes for “journalistic objectivity,” Bruni thinks it necessary to finger “both sides” when he finds that “one side” has done something that wants attention.
Bruni doesn’t expose the truth. He twists the truth. He is worse than a stenographer. In today’s column, he goes out of his way to get Mitt Romney off the hook for his failure to empathize with the vast majority of Americans whose incomes are a fraction of his own. Bruni suggests that Romney is “no different” from all the other presidential candidates who are so rich they can’t possibly empathize with ordinary voters. All presidential candidates are rich, Bruni says, whether Democrat or Republican, and nominees from both parties go out of their way to pretend otherwise – just like Romney. No, they don’t. Romney stands alone. Yet Frank Bruni folds him into the pack. Romney’s extraordinary wealth and his efforts to equate himself to ordinary Americans are typical of presidential candidates. They’re all super-rich; they all do it. I recently posited that Bruni had a purpose in shilling for Romney. My idea was that his tenure on the op-ed page was so disastrous that he might soon switch to covering the Romney campaign, and he wanted to signal to Romney that he would give the candidate positive coverage. This column does not change my mind. It is, like some of Bruni’s other columns that falsely equate Romney to other Republicans with Democrats, “desperately, profoundly dishonest.”
If Art Brisbane wants to call out the “truth vigilantes,” he should sic them on the New York Times op-ed page. They could start by hauling in Frank Bruni for some truth vigilante justice.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com