The first national political figure I ever interviewed was the late Elizabeth Edwards, then-wife of now-disgraced Senator John Edwards (D., N.C.), shortly before he announced his failed candidacy for president in 2007. She visited one of my small journalism classes at UNC-Chapel Hill and took questions from students.
Most of us offered up fawning softballs, until a classmate far braver than I dropped a bombshell: John Edwards presents himself as a champion of the poor, but is worth millions, and owns the biggest and most expensive house in Orange County, one of the richest counties in North Carolina. Isn't this a little awkward, to say the least?
I don't have the exact quote in front of me, but I'll never forget the gist of Edwards' response, which made my professor's jaw drop, and the indignation with which she uttered it: She and her husband have done so much for poor people, through his public service and work as a trial attorney, through their charitable activity and whatnot. Their motives were pure. Accordingly, they deserved to have nice things. Any criticism of their wealth and spending was motivated by little more than partisan animosity.
Edwards' comments were an early iteration of what has become proud tradition among prominent Democrats in recent years: Candidates whose public rhetoric is riddled with attacks on the very concept of personal wealth, while their own finances reveal a penchant for wealth hoarding and an aversion to charitable giving. This is almost always combined with unspoken a sense of entitlement, and an indignant defensiveness that seeks to disqualify criticism as "unfair."
Multi-millionaire Nancy Pelosi dismissing a heckler asking about her net worth during a discussion on income inequality. Multi-millionaire Harry Reid lamenting his "fixed income" as a U.S. senator. Multi-millionaire Barack Obama describing a $172,000 annual salary as "relatively modest." Multi-millionaire climate evangelist Al Gore shrugging off critics of his massive sellout to Qatari oil money. Socialist and mere millionaire Bernie Sanders offering curmudgeonly financial advice: "If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too."
Few have embraced this tradition more passionately than Bill and Hillary Clinton, who racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in book deals and speaking fees, launched a fabulously-endowed "charitable" foundation of dubious integrity, and aggressively dismissed their critics with tales of hardship — being "dead broke" and needing to "pay our bills," including "mortgages for houses," and earning their fortune "through dint of hard work," unlike the "truly well off."
Enter Beto O'Rourke, the failed Senate candidate who earned $3.4 million between 2008 and 2017, according to his recently released tax return, but donated just $24,300 to charity during that period, or 0.7 percent of his total income. He donated just 0.3 percent of his $366,455 income to charity in 2017.
O'Rourke, who along with his wife, Amy, listed assets worth as much as $16 million on financial disclosure forms in 2018, including a trust fund in Amy's name worth between $1 million and $5 million, was recently asked about his charitable delinquency during an appearance at the University of Virginia.
In response, O'Rourke offered his public service as an example of how he has "contribute[d] to the success of my community" in ways that are "immeasurable," and should be stacked up against his "measurable" contributions, including additional charitable donations he claimed to have made without reporting it on his taxes.
O'Rourke added that his presidential campaign was a "sacrifice" he was making for the good of the country. "I'm doing everything that I can right now, spending this time with you—not with our kiddos, not back home in El Paso—because I want to sacrifice everything to make sure that we meet this moment of truth with everything that we've got," he said.
Taking into account the "measurable" aspect of charitable giving, Beto is the least generous (by far) among Democratic presidential candidates who have released tax returns for 2017, although three of his rivals donated less than 2 percent of their income to charity—below the national average.
Beto's frugal approach to charity aligns with that of potential rival Joe Biden, who donated an average of just $369 a year to charity in the decade prior to his selection as Barack Obama's running mate in 2008, and barely increased his giving after taking office.
One hopes our national media will take after my classmate, and the questioner at the UVA town hall, by continuing to confront the candidates with difficult questions on this subject. Because at a time when the Democratic Party has embraced an agenda—the Green New Deal, specifically—that would require massive personal sacrifice and inconvenience on the part of everyday Americans (who probably donate more of their income to charity than Beto O'Rourke despite earning far less), its not unreasonable to wonder why so many of the party's candidates appear so unwilling to sacrifice in "measurable" ways.
Seeking or holding public office doesn't count, for crying out loud.