Since when has personal wealth become a disqualifier for the presidency? Had that been the case, there would have been no Roosevelts or Bushes in the White House. Jack Kennedy, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover -- and, for that matter, George Washington -- would have been precluded from holding the office.
In the modern era, only Harry Truman and Bill Clinton would have been allowed to occupy the Oval Office. Neither even owned a home. Truman lived with his mother-in-law until she died, and Clinton stayed in government-provided housing most of his official life. He at least became wealthy afterward. Truman never did. Lyndon Johnson had amassed a nice fortune before his election to the vice presidency, some of it through methods his opponents found questionable. Jimmy Carter ran a profitable peanut farm and had what we used to call small-town wealth.
Isn't the opportunity to get rich part of the American experience?
Yet Mitt Romney's bank account seems to be the focus of the presidential election campaign in what more and more appears to be an effort to divert voter attention from the president's own failures regarding the economy. The implication is that Romney's financial status, gained through Bain Capital, invalidates any ideas he might have for getting the nation rolling again.
Call it "Romney Hood," Barack Obama said recently, accusing his opponent of reversing the old English legend by robbing the poor to give to the rich. Somehow, this line of attack reminds me of the vaudevillian who dances with a rose in his teeth so no one will notice his feet, or the topless dancer who really can't dance. Who cares?
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Harry (The Lip) Reid, unrelentingly portrays Romney's financial well being as something sinister, contending without proof that it may have been enhanced by not paying income tax in 10 years. This unverified charge is backed up by the silence of the White House on grounds that Reid is a totally independent operator who can't be told to shut up. It is as though the former boxer with the notorious reputation for leveling unsubstantiated allegations is an impartial observer.
Of all people, Obama should realize the unfairness, having over the last four years suffered through similar allegations about his birth and religion and school grades. How many of us want our school grades revealed?
The charges have been aided by Romney's stubborn refusal to release his tax returns for the last 12 years. That certainly is his prerogative, although it may be politically boneheaded, because it leaves the impression that he's trying to hide something. His opponents would like to suggest that he has done something un-American, like taking advantage of tax shelters and loopholes and by stashing money in tax havens in Swiss and Caribbean banks. It's like one of those "what about that night at the motel?" questions every politician used to dread, before getting caught fooling around almost became a badge of honor.
The president's strategy is a not-too-subtle variation on an old theme: Republicans represent the rich and Democrats the poor. The Republicans contend a quadrennial promotion of class warfare that has been going on since Hoover's term began in 1929. But Americans in normal times have not resented wealth. Most of us believe that, through the grace of God, we can achieve some measure of the same success.
These aren't normal times, however, and the American dream has slipped badly. The gap between the upper and the lower income brackets has widened substantially.
The sideshow rhetoric probably will continue through this long hot summer and into the fall. But in the end, it may not make much difference. The election will turn on whom a majority of the voters decide is at fault for the wounded economy and who is best suited to fix it.
It will be a referendum on Obama's presidency, with neither candidate much able to change the outcome.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)