Are Attitudes Toward The Wealthy Changing?

Although Mitt Romney isn't the first very rich man to run for president, his multi-millionaire status seems to keep coming up — and often not in Romney's favor. Robert Siegel talks to Robert Frank, who covers wealth for the Wall Street Journal, about society's changing attitudes toward the extremely well off.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mitt Romney is not the first very rich man to seek public office. The Kennedys were rich. Nelson Rockefeller was rich. Michael Bloomberg is very rich. Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz was very rich. And when his widow married John Kerry, he became rich.

But unlike those men, Mitt Romney seems to have stubbed his toe verbally, time after time, when the subject was money, wealth or work.

MITT ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Ten thousand bucks?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Ten thousand dollar bet?

I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.

Corporations are people, my friend.

The country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy.

I think it's fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms.

I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.

I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.

What's the effective rate I've been paying? Well, it's probably closer to the 15 percent rate. And then I get speaker's fees from time to time, but not very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Those speaking fees actually amount to more than $370,000.

All this has made me wonder: Is Mitt Romney unusually awkward in the matter of being extremely rich and incredibly public or are the questions tougher these days for multi-millionaires who seek public office?

Well, Robert Frank covers wealth for The Wall Street Journal. He's written two books about the very rich: "Richistan" and now "The High-Beta Rich."

Robert Frank, welcome to the program.

ROBERT FRANK: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And what do you think is going on here? What do you make of the statements?

FRANK: Well, I think the problem is not necessarily a that he's very wealthy - he can overcome that. The problem is that his comments about money remind everyone how out of touch he is with the American people and their daily struggles. I mean, the comments yesterday where he said his speaking fees were quote, "not very much," and they were over $370,000.

It kind of recalls this time when McCain was talking about he can't remember how many homes he owns or when George Bush, Sr. in 1992, was talking about how amazed he was to discover the supermarket scanner. I mean, these are issues that remind voters that these very privileged politicians are out of touch with the rest of America.

SIEGEL: And yet, no one assumed that Nelson Rockefeller, who was the governor of New York State for many years, and John F. Kennedy, very popular president, nobody thought that they were having troubles make ends meet every month.

FRANK: No, we've had wealthy candidates in the past. The issue is that times have changed for wealthy candidates. The Occupy Wall Street movement, the Wall Street bailouts, the growing awareness of inequality has made the wealthy a real target. And in 2010, where there were congressional and gubernatorial elections, of the 58 wealthy candidates who helped finance their own campaigns, 80 percent lost those races.

And I think that a lot of the reasons were those candidates responding a lot of the campaigns defending their wealth or their yachts or their mansions, and not being able to focus on the real issues.

SIEGEL: But here's what seems novel about the wealth of Mitt Romney and how he must talk about it. He was raised to wealth and comfort. His father was a rich auto executive and then the governor of Michigan. But he made this fortune at Bain Capital. He actually made it. He could say this is the result of what I did. The problem is what he did, how he made that money.

FRANK: Exactly. And I think what's changed in America is that Americans are focusing more on how the wealthy made their money. You know, we have a narrative of wealth that we like in America, which is you start out with nothing and you make a fortune by creating a popular product, like the iPad or, in Herman Cain's case, a pizza chain. And they respect that wealth.

Romney started out with some wealth and got wealthier through private equity, which is difficult to understand and easy to compare to corporate raiding. So, unfortunately he's attracting more comparisons now to Gordon Gekko than to Steve Jobs. And it's really because his wealth is a result more of what people see as financial engineering rather than creating something of value to the economy.

SIEGEL: So, if you had made $200 million in private equity and you were running for president, and people were always asking you about inequality and there were issues about raising taxes on the rich, what would you say? How would you handle that?

FRANK: He needs to come out and give a speech. I call it the I'm Rich and I'm Proud Speech. And he needs to come out and say, look. I was really lucky to be born in this country when I was and have a set of skills that was hugely rewarded in the marketplace. And he needs to say, what I want to do now is to make sure those opportunities are available to even more Americans and really focus on growth and how he can use his business experience to sort of turn around the government.

I think the reason there's so much focus on his wealth is that he's really been trying to duck the issue and hide it.

SIEGEL: And not very gracefully.

FRANK: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Well, Robert Frank, thanks a lot for talking with us.

FRANK: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Robert Frank covers wealth for the Wall Street Journal and he's the author of the books, "Richistan" and "The High Beta Rich."

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