New Hampshire — In 1890, journalist Jacob Riis published a detailed and devastating portrayal of poverty, How the Other Half Lives. On a blindingly bright summer day, along a meticulously manicured lawn, I found today’s other half in a most unlikely place: Durham, New Hampshire. And more than a couple of them are running for president. There, and in dozens of “house parties” in the Granite State, they crowd in the huddled but fashionable masses and tell dire tales of woe while people munch on foie gras and quaff champagne.
The poverty of today is a well-hidden scourge. It’s a lesson I learned traveling to several of these Democratic gatherings sprouting up all over the state this past year. I was leaning on a rocking horse in an Exeter home one evening not so long ago, waiting for Howard Dean to breathe some life into the party. Suddenly, the lady of the house glanced at me from across the room, her eyes widened, and she beat a path through the crowd toward me, index finger extended.
“Can you please not sit on that, it’s an antique,” she said, tugging at her sweater set. “And, by the way, who are you writing for?” The little notebooks give you away every time, and to the limousine libs in the room, it may as well have been a billboard that read: “Card carrying member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.” In fact, I was stringing for a left-leaning local paper.
Before I could answer, another man, in a Brooks Brothers suit, marched up and demanded to be heard. “The core issue nobody wants to talk about, not even Dean, is we need to start the process of liquidating the assets of the fat cats in this country and get about redistributing the wealth,” he sermonized. It gave me a flavor of the steroid addled populism of the campaign to come.
As summer became fall, and Dean became Gephardt, and then Edwards, and then Kerry, and then Kucinich, the tales of woe intensified. Day after day, I showed up, holes in my shoes and a bank account nearing empty, to hear lectures about how President Bush and “the rich” were taking food out of the mouths of sweet poor babes. Except, these populists were not so poor. In some of the poshest neighborhoods in the state, standing in houses that cost four hundred grand if they cost a dime, the candidates led a boo-hoo chorus, with the full participation of enthusiastic college students and Lexus driving, antique furniture collecting, middle-aged counter-insurgents.
It occasionally got downright bizarre. Multi-millionaire trial lawyer John Edwards assured a crowd in Portsmouth he felt deeply the economic woes of “ordinary people,” despite his own vast fortune, hard won from chasing ambulances up and down the street. He understands the working class, he explained, because his father worked in a mill. “I hope we still believe in an America where the son of a mill worker can beat the son of a president,” Edwards said.
After the speech I asked Edwards if maybe he was a bit too bearish on the economic state of the nation. “People like my sister and brother-in-law are still suffering,” he replied. Members of his family, Edwards explained, are getting on only by the grace of God and a union card.
The question arose: Why should the sister of a multi-millionaire son of a mill worker be suffering? Couldn’t he find it in his heart to cut her a check, or roll up his sleeves and give her a hand? But such objections were beside the point: the point being to strike a pose that was more populist than the other guy.
Gephardt, for his part, stresses his humble upbringing as the son of a milk truck driver. The Teamsters put food on his table, and his dad loved the union for it. Dick’s brother remembers dinner differently. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “My father was in the Teamsters, but that’s because he had to be to get the job. I don’t recall him talking much about the union, how great it was. He prided himself on being a Republican. He hated Harry Truman. He had the feeling you had to make it on your own, that any kind of welfare program would just raise taxes.” Like the fall prone props in Plan 9 From Outer Space, such details were incidental to the larger story of private hardship and the public good.
The others? Dennis Kucinich, though well compensated for his time inside the Beltway, grew up poor, and claims to be poor still. He must be applying the same budget prowess to his personal finances that he used to bankrupt Cleveland. Bob Graham is a humble rancher who — cough! — owns a Jaguar. And when John Kerry isn’t tearing up over the tragic lives of today’s poor, or contending with Al Sharpton for the jailhouse vote, he’s a living advertisement for an economic development plan which has brought him so much success: marrying the wife of a rich, dead Republican.
Conspicuously absent from the proceedings, of course, were the traditional poor — i.e., people who actually have no money, and who are, therefore, icky. The poorest people at these soirees were the reporters covering them. As someone whose income last year registered well below the poverty line, I always harbored hopes that some of this enthusiasm for wealth redistribution would prompt the partygoers to take pity on us poor ink-stained wretches. Alas, it never happened.
Maybe it was the monotony of these events, or perhaps the sheer disingenuousness of it all: rich candidates telling rich people that they’re going to (wink, wink) fleece the rich — really get those bastards this time. But the more house parties I covered, the more I felt something welling up inside. More than once, I had to suppress the urge to push the candidate off his podium and deliver a message straight from the trailer parks:
Cry all you like for us from the verandas of your summer houses, eating piles of organic crackers that cost more than most of us spend on groceries in a week. It won’t make us trust you. Most of you have never been poor. You live extravagant lives and pontificate about how today’s Romans, some phantom mega-rich class, stand in the way of true equality for all.
Well I’ve got news for you: You are the Romans. Your fight has little to do with the poor, and everything to do with your fragile ’60s hippie self-image; finding a justification for your own excessive lifestyle.
If you stopped yakking about trendy causes like “social justice” or “inequality” and put your money where your mouth is; if you gave to charity the money you blow on marble countertops, BMWs, $6 loaves of organic bread, and Democratic presidential candidates, what a world this could be!
As I said, it was an impulse I suppressed, usually by tearing into an assortment of crackers and cheese. After all, I needed the income that stringing provided. For all their talk of equality, the rich may be different from the rest of us in one very important way: They can afford to say any old thing that comes out of their mouths.
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