We’ve had forty-five presidents in our nation’s history and there’s a prevailing myth that anyone, regardless of wealth, can grow up and join the club. While it is possible, and we do have examples, to be born poor and make it to the White House, is not the normal way things happen, especially in the modern era.
Everyone knows about Lincoln being born in a log cabin and splitting fence rails for a living. But besides Abe, there are a number of others who had similar humble beginnings. On the list of those who weren’t born with a wooden spoon in their mouths would be George Washington, the Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, and the Bushes.
While most presidents left office well prepared for their futures, several didn’t. Grant and Truman, because of bad investments, barely evaded debtors prison. Grant, nearing his final days, ensured his wife’s future by writing a memoir for which Mark Twain gave him a 75% royalty. While the general didn’t live to see any of the money, in today’s dollar, his wife ended up with an estate of over $12 million.
Truman was never financially fixed. Bad investments kept the big bad wolf near his door and on one occasion he narrowly avoided bankruptcy. When he and his wife Bess left DC they moved into his mother in law’s home and lived out his life on a very small WWI veteran’s pension, meager income from a memoir, and later a small presidential pension. Out of decency and respect for the presidency, Truman refused offers to endorse products or become a member of various corporate boards.
Presidents Johnson and Nixon were born poor, Johnson on a small Texas ranch and Nixon into a family who ran a small grocery-gasoline station in Whittier, Ca.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t born poor but he wasn’t a rich man’s son either. His father was a successful small businessman and invested in local farmland engaging the family in cotton and peanut farming. Over the years Carter authored n over twenty-five books, mostly bestsellers, and I’m sure the income from those alone have more than tided him over.
Ronald Reagan is another American president who began life as most of us have. The family lived in small apartments as his father made a living as a salesman. At one time the Reagans were living above a variety store and Dutch retorted while living on the second floor of the White House that he living above the store again.
Rounding out the modern list are Bill Clinton and Barach Obama. Clinton’s biological father was killed in an accident before his birth and he was left to be raised for some time by his grandparents who ran a small Hope, AK grocery. Obama’s story is familiar to most Americans today. He was born in Hawaii to a Nigerian father and a mother from Illinois. The father abandoned the family and his mother died from cancer. Following that Obama was raised by his grandparents.
And now to Trump who loves to play the rags to riches story claiming he began his life with a small loan from his father and the rest is history. Like so much Trump claims there is no truth in this. His father, a multi-millionaire real estate developer, played the tax loopholes and made his son a millionaire by age eight. A couple of decades later Donald received questionable monies from his father’s companies totaling a reported $413 million. Trump was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It was a platinum spoon layered with 24-carat gold and encrusted with the most precious of precious stones. Anything resembling a log cabin is high atop Trump Tower and awash in gold leaf and glitz.
The reality is that even those former presidents who were born into wealth grew up with an understanding of and empathy for, the common person. It was Teddy Roosevelt whose Square Deal included an emphasis on controlling big business and protecting the consumer. His cousin, Franklin, oversaw the New Deal that introduced dozens of federal programs to improve the lives of America’s poorest. It was the Kennedys who opened the door to civil rights reform and attacked poverty in America’s poorest regions.
Rich or poor America’s presidents, except for the current White House occupant, have felt empathy for the working classes and have worked, to one degree or another, to help ensure the basic needs of people are attended to.