Last week, the Times ran a big story about Mitt Romney’s double life as a reluctant millionaire, as told by his close friends and associates. He may have bought his wife a six-figure horse and he’s quadrupling the size of his $12-million house—but he flies JetBlue! He plays golf with clubs he bought at K-Mart! He’s rich, but he’s not comfortable being rich. He splurges, but not on himself. For a man who’s bought houses that look like hotels and contributed millions to his own campaigns, the whole exercise can seem like splitting hairs. But it also reveals an obnoxious habit common to a number of wealthy male candidates: the attempt to secure a free pass for one’s lavish lifestyle by passing blame onto the wife and kids.
Every campaign cycle we’re periodically reminded that the enormously wealthy men who run for president tend to spend money on enormously expensive things. The purchases inspire awe-struck coverage (see: “McCain family owns 8 properties”; “Romney plans to quadruple size of Calif. home”; and “Newt Gingrich had second line of credit at Tiffany and Co.”) and they invariably demand a response from the candidates, whose best bet, whenever possible, is to chalk them up to the profligacy of others.
There are a couple different versions of this strategy. For instance, there’s the straight-up “Blame my wife, please!” approach, perfected by Newt Gingrich when reporters kept hammering him on his extraordinary line of credit at Tiffany’s. “[Callista] has girlfriends with birthdays,” he finally told CBS. Similarly, before John McCain caught so much heat for his family’s eight houses, his campaign had attempted to establish Cindy as the glamorous one, organizing a flattering Vogue profile in which she described their purchase of a second beachfront condo like spending so many pennies: “So I bought another one.” (Ironically, the one presidential candidate who got slammed for having a lavish home and wasn’t tactless enough to blame his wife was John Edwards, even though buying the most expensive house in the county*, as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin later revealed in their book, Game Change, was Elizabeth’s idea.)
A more nuanced version of the same tactic is the loving-provider approach. When the San Diego Union-Tribune discovered the quadruplication plans for Romney’s California home, his campaign explained that “with five married sons and 16 grandchildren, [the current house] is inadequate for their needs.” Romney aides also readily point out that Ann Romney’s beachfront horseback riding doubles as therapy for her multiple sclerosis. Under slightly different circumstances, when former presidential candidate Al Gore was accused of having a hypocritically energy-intensive mansion, his spokesperson also played the family card: “The bottom line is that every family has a different carbon footprint,” she said. “And what Vice President Gore has asked is for families to calculate that footprint and take steps to reduce and offset it.”
To be sure, as was the case with the independently wealthy Cindy McCain purchasing eight homes in her name, sometimes the wife really is just a free-spending gal. And regardless of who’s doing the spending (or enjoying), one could argue that it’s hardly shocking for a man who’s worth as much as a quarter-billion dollars to indulge in a lavish purchase from time to time. And, of course, we wouldn’t want to deny someone suffering from MS any indulgence that might assuage the symptoms. But the recurring attempt to blame the wife and kids for a lavish lifestyle isn’t just ridiculous and a little sexist; in the parlance of the über rich, it’s also quite gauche.
Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
*CORRECTION: The house purchased by John Edwards was the most expensive house in the county, not the most expensive in the country. We regret the error.