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What Romney Doesn't Get, But FDR and the Kennedys Did

If you haven’t read Noam Scheiber’s magazine article on Mitt Romney, you should. And make sure you read all the way to the end, where it contains one of the great one-liners of all time. I won’t spoil it, except to say that, substantively, it suggests Romney doesn't dwell on the plight of those less fortunate than him.

Noam wrote that piece before Romney’s controversial statement, on Wednesday morning, that he's "not concerned about the very poor." But the timing was perfect and it got me thinking: Can somebody born into great wealth, as Romney was, have a strong sense of social solidarity with or obligation towards the poor?

The answer, clearly, is yes. Franklin Roosevelt is one famous example. The siblings of the Kennedy family are another. Like Romney, they were all part of the aristocracy. They also crusaded for economic justice, Roosevelt earning his peers’ scorn as a “class traitor” and the Kennedy clan eventually making the disadvantaged the focus of their political lives. Romney obviously feels more compassion than the unfortunately worded quote suggests, but just as obviously feels less compassion than either FDR or the Kennedys did.

Why the difference? Here's a theory – and, be warned, it's highly speculative. We know, from history books, that illness had a profound effect on Roosevelt’s worldview: His battle with polio helped him to understand real adversity and what it takes to overcome it. Among the influences that may have affected John Kennedy was his service in World War II – not just the brush with death after the destruction of his torpedo boat, but also the experience of serving alongside young men from diverse, less privileged backgrounds. As Mickey Kaus points out in The End of Equality, Kennedy's crew included a high school drop-out, a machinist, and a commercial fisherman, as well as another Ivy Leaguer.* 

My knowledge of Romney's life is not comprehensive, but I recall no similar experiences in his childhood or life as a young adult. At Cranbrook, the exclusive private school in Detroit’s northern suburbs, Romney was a prankster and a goof. He was smart and, with age and hard work, became the success story we know today. But life-threatening challenges never presented themselves and, with the possible exception of his Mormon mission in Europe, Romney spent very little time outside his relatively affluent circles.

Values come from many places, of course. Romney seems to have a genuine dedication to public service, for example. It's one of his more admirable qualities and I've always assumed that reflects the influence of his father, the late governor George Romney, who both preached and practiced the ethos of public service. But George Romney also showed more interest in spreading prosperity, by race as well as by class – perhaps because of his own, more humble origins. Mitt doesn't appear to have inherited that trait, based on everything I've seen and heard (including Noam's article).

I don't say that because he has conservative views on policy, by the way. As Joe Scarborough noted Thursday on “Morning Joe,” Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Human Development during the administration of George H.W. Bush, was deeply committed to helping low-income Americans, particularly African-Americans. So are plenty of conservative intellectuals. (Stuart Butler comes quickly to mind.) But Kemp died two years ago. I'm hard-pressed to think of a prominent Republicans who feels the same way today. In that sense, Romney seems depressingly typical of the times.

One more thing: You needn’t romanticize the poor to think society has an obligation to them. Critics of social welfare spending frequently complain that the poor are lazy, dishonest, and irresponsible. Sometimes those descriptions are true. But sometimes they are also true of the rich. Pick any rarified group in American society – a corporate boardroom, an elite private school, a country club – and I promise that you will find plenty of people who benefitted from luck and got second (or third and fourth) chances because they or their parents had enough money to provide them. 

We don't need our leaders to be ashamed of their good fortune. We do want them to be aware of it. Roosevelt and the Kennedys were. Romney, I fear, is not.

Charles Peters, Kaus' mentor at the Washington Monthly, has long used the Kennedy story to argue that the old-fashioned draft was a valuable socializing institution worth reviving, perhaps in the form of a national service program. My colleague Tim Noah, also a Monthly alum, is among those who have made the case in writing.

Update: A reader reminds me that it was John Kennedy's brothers, Robert and Edward, who really focused on the poor. That's correct. I've changed the headline and a few words to reflect that. But fighting poverty, particularly in Appalachia, was on his agenda. The creation of Medicare, to save the elderly from crippling medical bills, was among his major campaign promises in 1960. Also, if you want to read more about Romney's life and how it shaped his views, I recommend Michael Tomasky's new essay in the New York Review of Books.