Blogs > HNN > Our Childish Debate About John McCain's Marriage to a Wealthy Woman

Aug 25, 2008 6:16 am

Our Childish Debate About John McCain's Marriage to a Wealthy Woman

[Mr. Shenkman, the editor of HNN, is the author of Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power & Got Things Done (HarperCollins). His latest book is Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books). ]

We are supposed to be shocked that John McCain has so many houses he can't remember off the top of his head how many he actually has. Please. People who run for president tend to be wealthy.

We are also supposed to be shocked that he may have married for money. This so contravenes our democratic sensibilities that we cannot admit to ourselves even in a quiet moment that marriage is about anything other than love. Get over it, folks. You and I may have married for love. Most presidents haven't.

George Washington, out searching for a wife, did not just happen to marry the richest woman in Virginia.  James Buchanan did not just happen to go after the daughter of the richest man in Pennsylvania.  Abraham Lincoln did not just happen to marry one of Springfield’s few aristocrats.  James Garfield did not just happen to marry the daughter of the founder of the college where he was a teacher.  William McKinley did not just happen to marry the daughter of the local newspaper publisher.  Franklin Roosevelt did not just happen to marry Teddy Roosevelt’s niece.  John Kennedy did not just happen to marry a beautiful aristocrat.  Lyndon Johnson did not just happen to court the daughters of three of the richest men in his part of Texas.  Things like this don’t just happen.

            Fact:  Most presidents married up––or married someone who could do their career some good.

            Fact::  No presidents married beneath themselves.  If, like Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt, they happened to fall in love with someone who was beneath them, these women were kept on the side as mistresses.

These are distressing facts for a democratic nation to have to confront. We prefer to think that our presidents emerged from a log cabin in their youth, scrambled up the greasy pole of life all on their own, and then rose to stunning heights of power through the strength of their character. It's a lovely story, one that we can convince ourselves is true because we lack a history of hereditary kings, about whose ascendance there cannot be a smidgen of sentimental democratic posh. If only it were true.

So John Kerry married a Heinz, and John McCain wed a beer heiress. So what? If a disqualification for the presidency is to be social ambitiousness we shall have to rewrite history. If in our more democratic age we insist that from this day henceforth we shall only consider as potential leaders those who married for love we shall soon run out of candidates.

It's all so much nonsense. Do we think that people running for president are like the stars we see on the cover of Teen Magazine who confess that their one true desire is to find a soul mate, whether this person be rich or poor, pretty or ugly? These are childish illusions. And the sooner we part with them the better.

We care of course about their marriages because we are human beings and cannot help measuring presidents by the same yardstick with which we measure ourselves. This is a mistake. They are not like you and me, in the main. No normal person would put themselves through what presidents have to. Ambition defines them in a way we can hardly fathom.

We do not want to believe they marry for money or position because we retain the republican's simple faith that power should be thrust on leaders by a willing public and never be sought after. This too is an appealing story to a democratic people. It is also hogwash. I know of no president who won a place in society without making the most careful of calculations.

I find myself amused by the debate therefore about McCain's houses and his wife's wealth. It would seem that we are still so wedded to the myths of American democracy that we cannot imagine for a moment the calculations that go into a successful rise to the top. What McCain's marriage to Cindy says about him, I'm not sure; maybe he married for love, maybe he married for wealth, who knows? Maybe he himself isn't sure. But what our reaction to his marriage says about us is all too clear.

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David Allen Fish - 9/22/2008

My question is, how many presidents committed adultery, divorced their wives and abandoned their families, in order to marry up?

If John McCain were to be elected, I think that he would be the first.

bill farrell - 8/29/2008

James Buchanan never marrieed. He may have been the first gay President (though the term gay was not used for homosexuals at the time).

E. Simon - 8/27/2008

McCain's likely positions on taxes and economic policy will be made on the basis of wealth as a product of the success that pays off from hard work - in short, merit.

There is nothing meritocratic in marrying an heiress - (whom one can conveniently prefer in order to push one's disfigured wife out of the way) - unless, of course, one's view of merit applies to the art of seduction. An odd definition indeed, and one more fitting a Daniel Steele novel, not a president.

Lorraine Paul - 8/27/2008

McCain is full certainties and slogans and has none of the analytical skills needed in today's complex world. This was shown in his pathetic statement about rich people being unhappy. Good lord! I expected a biography of Doris Duke to be served up next!

The 'debate' at Saddleback where his dumbed-down answers and 'homey' anecdotes merely highlighted his total lack of undertstanding of even simple societal and sociological constructs.

It appears to me that if McCain gets elected the people of the United States will have at least four more years of a rich man who knows little beyond life other than that found in the elite stratum in which he moves and belongs.

A fact which does not bode well for any of us on this planet let alone the people of the US.

Lorraine Paul - 8/27/2008

The capitalist society alone can never serve the 'common good'. It always needs a strong infusion of social networks and safety nets.

In no way can 'the market' even begin to be a fair system. Of course if you don't want a 'fair' system you will worship 'the market'!

Michael Green - 8/26/2008

Professor Shenkman, I think you have confirmed my point: their policies should be in play. Their lives as individuals say something about those policies, though. And what we want and what we have are, sadly, all too often unconnected.

HNN - 8/25/2008

I did not wish to leave the impression that FDR was after Eleanor for her money but rather was taken with the prospect of marrying into a wing of the family that landed someone in the White House.

Marriage is complicated, of course. Why people marry is known only to them and sometimes not even to them.

But there's an old story about FDR that sheds light on his motivations. Around the time he was courting Eleanor, at the age of twenty-one, he confessed to a friend that he very much wanted to be president of the US. Someone in that frame of mind would not have thought it unhelpful to have his wife's uncle living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

HNN - 8/25/2008

Were I in Obama's shoes I too would make sport of McCain's many houses.

That's his obligation as a politician.

My obligation as a historian and journalist is to throw a larger light on the subject by placing McCain's marriage in historical context of sorts.

Saying it's theater is true. But I wanted to go further and explain what the theatrics cover up, why we respond to these theatrics, and what they tell us about who we are and the values we cherish.

This is a lot more than about a few houses.

HNN - 8/25/2008

It's their policies about wealth and social justice that should be in play, not whether they have successfully spun a story about their rags to riches upbringing.

HNN - 8/25/2008

Myths drive politics. And the biggest myth of all is the log cabin myth, as I have been caught saying about a hundred million times over on the blog.

So you're right, in my view, Ms. Spark!


Randll Reese Besch - 8/25/2008

Clare Lois Spark, why are you so partisan on this? No republican fat cats exist? The hypocrisy of the Repubs is legendary when they deal with their enemies.

As long as we allow money to rule the elections then only a certain class of people will be able to be run and get elected. No blue collars allowed. Only silver,gold, platinum and chromium collar types will be able to afford it. Just imagine, free speech at a price. Cognitive dissonance intended.

Alonzo Hamby - 8/25/2008

I like the general tenor of Rick's article, but have one caveat.

I don't believe Franklin Roosevelt was interested in Eleanor's money. He always had taken money for granted and had an indulgent mother willing to let him have what he wanted.

My own impression is that he liked Eleanor, was attracted by her social progressivism, and was also drawn to her by the fact that she was the niece of the man he admired most in the world, Theodore Roosevelt. It doubtless helped also that, as Geoffrey Ward has shown, he was on the rebound after being spurned by a beautiful young socialite.

Lucy Mercer, who came along eight years into their marriage, was of an old and socially prominent family that had squandered its money. So she was really a social equal.

Missy Le Hand, the other notably affectionate feminine relationship in FDR's life, however, was from a very modest background.

It may tell us something that Eleanor resented Lucy's intrusion into her marriage for the next thirty years, but seems never to shown any jealousy toward Missy.

Craig Michael Loftin - 8/25/2008

Campaigns tend to aim pretty low. To me the house thing seems pretty simple: for months McCain has been labeling Obama a latte drinking, arugala eating elitist, and so Obama making a big deal about the houses is an attempt to neutralize that line of critique. It's all theater (unfortunately).

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

Actually, Mr. Maass, I haven't heard Kerry comment on this. Can you substantiate that claim with a link? - TL

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

Rick is right that we should be talking about substance over symbolism, and those pro-wealthy tax policies are symbolized by McCain's inability to talk about class distinctions and economic policy. - TL

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

Why can't McCain explain how he defines rich? - TL

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

Even if McCain's comments were made, as you say, in a joking fashion, he never made a serious clarification. And it correlates with his reluctance to talk about his wealth in dodging questions about how many houses he owns. What's the man's social conscience with regard to class issues? How does he care for the poor and middle class? I'm not sure. - TL

Michael Green - 8/25/2008

If this campaign were based simply on the issues, given the Iraq war and the economy, McCain would not be in the building--and I refer to the state of the nation, not my own partisan preferences. But campaigns are not based on that. Therefore, I fear, Professor Shenkman proceeds from the assumption that Americans are not, as Bill Maher has so wisely said, too dumb to be governed.

What really disturbs me about Professor Shenkman's argument is that he also proceeds from the assumption that wealth should not be an issue in a presidential campaign. How the wealthy respond to the troubles of the less fortunate is very telling, from FDR developing compassion to Ronald Reagan believing, with some justification, that if he could pull himself up by his bootstraps, so should everyone else, to George Bush demonstrating the well-intended noblesse oblige of the upper crust. Why did George W. Bush call it "compassionate conservatism" when he otherwise demonstrates a chilling lack of empathy and awareness?

The importance of McCain's situation is what it says about his character or lack of it. It also brings up a stark issue: if at age 71 he is unsure of how many houses he owns, what else might he be unsure of? If Obama's race is the elephant in that room, McCain's age and his temperament, understandably affected by his years in captivity, are the elephant in the other room.

Clare Lois Spark - 8/25/2008

The five million remark was made jokingly at the Saddleback Forum. And it was a stupid question unless there was to be a follow up on tax policy, cost of living in various regions and cities, and related matters that could be determined empirically regarding the merits of redistribution, free trade, and economic policy in general.
Lacy's comment is in my view, not only a Democratic Party talking point, but avoids the debate we should be having, as I laid out in my comment below.

Clare Lois Spark - 8/25/2008

The issue here is how the Obama campaign is spinning the McCain real estate amazing news. Here are identity politics with a vengeance. Since Biden is now described as a man of the people, the 20th-21st century version of the log cabin man, he is held to more "in touch" with the problems of the white working class, a voting bloc that was supporting Hillary Clinton.
This kind of irrationality is what has substituted for a rational dialogue that would examine empirically the efficacy of specific economic policies, either supply-side, or redistributionist, or a combination of both, in serving the common good in a capitalist economy. But such calculations are apparently off the table for many, who would rather view the voting public as a group mind susceptible to symbol manipulation, not appeals to reason. To what degree "populists" have indulged in such psychological warfare/mind-management, I leave to the HNN reader to determine. I have documented the attempts of "progressives" and "populists" to deploy such underhanded and contemptible tactics in all my work in intellectual history.

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

this was the product of an accidental keystroke. - TL

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008

...whether McCain really understands "class" in the United States. He seems to have no clear view of the on-the-ground differences between the rich, middle class, and poor. This was made abundantly clear in his answer to Rick Warren about how McCain defined rich. McCain answered 5 million dollars. That's bleeping absurd.

And on his wife, it's not about Cindy as much as McCain's so-called "christian" character. What of his treatment to his ex? What were the circumstances of the transition?

Finally, both McCain's character and motivations with regard to marriage, as well as on wealth, are being measured according to Obama. How does he stand up ~in relation to~ who he is running against? I think many of us know the answer on these two points. - TL

Tim Lacy - 8/25/2008


John R. Maass - 8/25/2008

It is funny how the same folks who championed John Kerry in 2004 (a man who with his wealthy wife owned a number of palatial homes) now berate McCain for the same thing. Kerry, I might point out, was nominated by the party of the little guy, class envy, and confiscation.

HNN - 8/25/2008

All of these narrative story lines--anti-elitist campaign, etc.--are so much bs.

Let's get real.

By the time someone runs for president they are almost never in a position to champion the poor without being charged with hypocrisy.

By the time they are in a position to run for high office they have accumulated a small fortune.

It's not what they own that should mark them as a populist. It's what they plan to do for The People.

That's why FDR is a populist in my book.

McCain's pro-wealthy tax policies are what's hypocritical about his candidacy--not that he owns 7 houses (or whatever the number is).

Jonathan Dresner - 8/22/2008

McCain's house collection wouldn't be a problem if he wasn't running an "anti-elitist" campaign and hadn't spent decades grooming his own celebrity status. Marrying up isn't a problem: spouse-hopping, on the other hand, isn't something our earlier presidents (except Reagan) generally engaged in. Both Clinton and George W. Bush married people in or below their economic class, so the recent trend is much less aristocratic than usual.