The enduring mystery of the elitism debate


Geraldine Sealey
July 14, 2004 1:27AM (UTC)

If Karl Rove had his way, any American chosen at random would describe the personalities of the two major presidential candidates in the following manner. John Kerry: Blue-blood, elite, aloof, patrician. George W. Bush: Everyman, man to have beer with (even if it's an O'Doul's), average, likeable. Bush-Cheney '04 planned to portray Kerry as an out-of-touch millionaire -- recall the speaks-French, schooled in the Alps meme -- hoping no one would notice Bush's prep-schooled upbringing was remarkably similar. And in at least some people's minds, Rove's trick was working. On Sunday, the New York Times' Robin Toner pondered Kerry's great challenge in communicating with commoners. "Mr. Kerry, while he tries hard, does not always connect to the bread-and-butter, regular-guy voters he seeks. (It is an enduring mystery to many Democrats why Mr. Bush, with no less patrician roots, manages to elude the charge of elitism. 'It seems like something you could throw at them, but it just doesn't stick,' said Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana.)"

An enduring mystery, indeed -- made even more mysterious by a new study that shows it isn't even true. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that when asked which of the candidates is a "wealthy elitist" 27 percent chose George W. Bush, compared to 20 percent for John Kerry. Another new poll shows Bush edging out Kerry when voters are asked to describe the magnitude of the candidate's wealth, and a majority saying Bush, not Kerry, is the arrogant one (although Bush also gets a slight edge for being more "likeable".)

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The "enduring mystery" appears to be a myth. And the Project for Excellence reports that the Kerry-elitism charge has received less traction in the media than you might imagine. The Project conducted a content analysis of coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign in six newspapers, 20 television and radio programs, and five Internet sites and found only 10 mentions of Kerry's supposed elitism in 1,073 "assertions" studied. Yet the myth has found some life in the media, including the pages of Toner's newspaper, fueled by outlandish reported details of the trappings of Kerry's supposedly high-class lifestyle. For example, on Kerry's Father's Day weekend in Nantucket, Jodi Wilgoren (who also crafted a profile of Kerry's "butler" that claimed Kerry "is comfortable being catered to") wrote in the Times: "[S]ome Democrats were concerned about the image of their wealthy candidate frolicking among the fabulously wealthy here on an island where the average home sells for $1.4 million." She then itemized the holiday retreat, from the "gentleman's fishing vessel said to cost about $150,000," to "sauteed yuzu-dusted day boat sea scallops for $36," to his five-bedroom house "valued at $9 million in 1995." An RNC web ad, calling the outing "A Very Kerry Weekend," used similar details, including the price of the scallops.

A Very Bush Weekend, the RNC and Wilgoren implied, would never be so extravagantly out-of-touch. "The weekend," Wilgoren told us, "was Mr. Kerry's first real holiday since the week he spent at his wife's Sun Valley, Idaho, home in March, where he was widely photographed snowboarding. It was reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's vacations in borrowed houses on nearby Martha's Vineyard, and a sharp contrast to President Bush's frequent brush-clearing forays on his sweltering ranch in Crawford, Tex."

On Daily Howler, Bob Somerby had some fun with Wilgoren's Nantucket-equals-Martha's Vineyard-but-does-not-equal-Crawford analysis. "Of course, 'reminiscence' is in the mind of the reminiscer; propagandizing pundits 'reminisce' about the things they want their readers to recall. But one thing didn't come to Wilgoren's mind -- the price tag on Bush's ranch in Texas. The ranch is 'sweltering,' Wilgoren says, but to all appearances, it must have come free. She sticks price tags on everything else. But Minnie Pearls always know their crowd -- and this one knows you don't mess with Bush." For the record, Bush's tax records value his 1,583-acre ranch between $1 and $5 million.

Wilgoren isn't alone in highlighting Kerry's relatively "blue-blood" ways -- the AP's Nedra Pickler had a remarkably similar take on Kerry's Nantucket weekend, writing: "Like Kerry, President Bush is a Yale graduate who has benefited from his wealth and family connections. But Bush spends his down time trying to be more of an everyman, preferring to spend vacations at his Texas ranch clearing brush." Somerby also caught the Times' Katharine Seelye finding a patrician theme in Kerry's military records. And Kerry's background and personality often gets passing mention in news reports in dashed-off comments now so familiar they're just part of the campaign coverage wallpaper. Especially last week when, after Kerry named John Edwards to be his running mate, reporters contrasted the men's complementary backgrounds and styles. In the words of Boston Globe reporter Patrick Healy, the ticket represented "the poles of Northern patrician and Southern Horatio Alger." The AP's Ron Fournier said Democrats predicted Edwards would help Kerry in rural America, where his "patrician New England manner may not play as well." Fournier described Kerry as "a decorated Vietnam veteran whom critics call aloof."

Despite labels tossed around in the media and the efforts of the RNC, though, the elitist rap hasn't stuck to Kerry so far in voters' minds. For Rove, this may be the most enduring mystery of all.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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