Of Inflated Biographies and Deflated Charity

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 01, 2008, issue of April 11, 2008.
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No one is perfect. Yet the high emotions of a political campaign are an inducement to idol worship. What follows is intended as an antidote to idolatry.

I set John McCain to the side here. Many admire him; few idolize him. His strange plans for the economy, which would add some $400 billion to the national deficit (beyond the $400 billion already projected for 2009), which would say “yes” to Bear Stearns but say “no” to homeowners in trouble, and which would lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% (in its most recent quarterly report, ExxonMobil reported $11.66 billion in profits), there will be ample time to speak. Here, I am more interested in feet — specifically, clay feet.

Senator Hillary Clinton boasts that she is better qualified than Senator Barack Obama to answer the telephone at 3 a.m. She also tells a fanciful tale of coming under sniper fire in Tuzla when, as first lady, she visited Bosnia in 1996. More accurately, she has told that tale, at least three times, nor was she ad-libbing; the text of her report about how she and her party had to forgo the scheduled greeting ceremony and, heads ducked, run for cover, was included in her prepared text.

When the fib was revealed, the candidate claimed she had “misspoken.” And what accounted for her tall tale? In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on March 24, she said, “I was sleep-deprived, and I misspoke.”

Is someone who invents tall tales when sleep-deprived the kind of person you want answering the phone next to her White House bed at 3 a.m.? And now for Obama, who has turned out to be the Pied Piper of this campaign, energizing hordes of people, especially young people, talking with them about hope and about their own responsibility for helping fix America.

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern University graduates last year at commencement ceremonies. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those who are different from us: the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

Good, yes? But in 2002, on a reported household income of $259,394, his and his wife’s charitable cash contributions came to a measly $1,050. (That’s less than a half of 1% of their income.) Only much later, after he signed lucrative contracts for two books — and began to consider running for much, much higher office — did the charitable contributions spike up: In 2005, on a reported income of $1.65 million, the Obamas gave away about $77,300, about 4% of their income. In 2006, on a reported income of $983,626, they gave away $60,307, about 6%. And Obama has pledged to donate more than $200,000 of his book royalties to charity.

True, there’s precedent for this. In 1998, then-vice president Al Gore reported a total of $353 in charitable donations. After being duly criticized, the Gores in 1999 donated $15,197 to charities, and these days he has become a major benefactor of the environment, contributing all the profits from his DVD, all of his Nobel Prize money and a substantial part of the million he made as an investor in Google. And Bill and Hillary Clinton, who by 1999 contributed almost $162,000 to charity, also had their lean years: The former president once claimed a $75 deduction for donating a suit with ripped pants to the Salvation Army, as well as $2 for a pair of used underwear and $9 for six pairs of used socks.

The precedents, such as they are, do not justify Obama’s disappointing past behavior. While giving money is not necessarily the best way to help heal a fractured world, and is at best only necessary, not ever sufficient to bring about change you can believe in, it is a handy measure of empathy — of empathy not merely as a posture, but as a practice.

True, neither McCain nor Clinton has yet released his tax returns, as Obama has. True as well that the Clintons and McCains, as also, for that matter, the George W. Bushes and Dick Cheneys, have given away very substantial sums — in all four cases, on vastly larger wealth. But we are entitled to compare Obama not only to his rivals or others, but also to Obama. (As we are taught by the story of Rabbi Zussya, who realized that when he ascended to heaven, he would not be asked why he hadn’t been Moses, but why he hadn’t been Zussya.)

Lesson One: No one is perfect. Our candidates, like ourselves, come with virtues — and with flaws. How to assess those flaws, how to compare them, how to factor them into our choice, how, if at all, to distinguish between poor policies and imperfect personal traits — that’s our work, the work of the voters.

We can only do that work if we adhere to the prohibition against idolatry. In prohibiting idolatry, God may have been expressing jealousy — or God may have been protecting us from the disappointment that’s inevitable once we notice, as sooner or later we are sure to, the idol’s clay feet. Deal with it.

Lesson Two: If you’re thinking about going public — and what is more public than running for the highest office in the land? — don’t inflate your bio and don’t deflate your charitable contributions. As a matter of fact, that’s good advice even if you are not thinking of going public. For though your ambitions (or fantasies) may remain more modest, you can still be a winner.


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